Shoddy Journalism

The last few days have seen great coverage of astronomy in the UK. The European Space Agency's Herschel satellite (which the UK is a major part of), and XMM-Newton, released a stunning multi-wavelength image of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. It has been covered well by the BBC and Independent. However, some newspapers have done a spectacularly bad job at reporting this story.

This morning Dave Pearson pointed out that the Daily Mail had attributed the M31 image to NASA. Attributing things to NASA, when they aren't NASA's work, is fairly common in the UK so this was annoying but not totally surprising. However, the tone of the article and the misleading way it was written really got me angry. The premise was that "NASA" shouldn't spend money on spacecraft when you can make equally pretty pictures from the ground. The implication is that we build space missions purely to make nice images. We do make nice images but they are first and foremost designed to push back the frontiers of our knowledge. These observations of M31 were made at wavelengths impossible (effectively) to do from the ground.

Over in The Metro, the reporting was even worse. The Metro has a surprisingly good (for a free tabloid) section about space but this particular article seems to have been written by an anonymous "Metro Reporter". The first sentence references NASA, as in the Daily Mail article, but the second sentence even goes as far as to claim the image was taken by Hubble! I realise that Hubble and Herschel both begin with the same letter but that doesn't make them the same thing. This is basic fact-checking.

The same Cambridgeshire-based amateur astronomer, Steve Loughran, took the nice optical images that are featured in both articles. Interestingly, on his blog, he thanks Joanne Riley (BAV Media) and Geoff Robinson (who took the shots of him with his telescope) and seems fairly pleased with the coverage. Did the "NASA" mistake originate with Steve? I'm willing to accept it was an honest mistake but it seems neither the PR agent nor the newspapers put any effort into checking the facts before publication. It isn't difficult. A simple Google search would have done it.

Pehaps this is just another example of news outlets regurjitating press releases with minimal journalistic input. Amusingly, newspapers often complain about the poor quality of fact-checking on blogs. They might want to listen to their own advice.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 07th Jan 2011 (13:11 GMT) | Permalink
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