Category: Blame the Media

Finding Amelia Earhart’s Plane: New TIGHAR Expedition

The Internet doesn’t think very highly of Amelia Earhart. As a girl I was fortunate enough to do school projects on some great female role models. One that stands out in my memory was Amelia Earhart. Learning about great women helped form my conviction at an early age that women have as much to offer the world as men. I loved Amelia Earhart for what she represented to me: defiance, adventure and mystery. Reading this article in the Telegraph, and checking out the comments where she is called a “dumb woman” and “foolish” made me pause. The commenters also slam the effort to find out what happened to her based on the Telegraph’s claim that the expedition is “backed” by the U.S. Navy.

The article is about The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery’s (TIGHAR) planned trip this July to try to located the remains of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra aircraft. I’ve written before about TIGHAR and their efforts to find enough evidence to conclude that Earhart landed, and later died on the island of Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati. According to some of the commenters finding out what happened to Earhart isn’t worth the effort. Some say because she was an idiot flying when she did and some say it isn’t worth it because of the money. Many of the commenters are up in arms that the Navy is “backing” the project on the grounds that the economy is still down and this is a stupid thing to spend money on.
I was surprised to see the Telegraph headline, “US Navy prepares mission to solve riddle of Amelia Earhart’s death” knowing that the TIGHAR expedition to find the plane was planned for this summer. When you read the Telegraph’s article, you can see that the expedition they are talking about is the one by TIGHAR. Now, TIGHAR is funded by contributions not federal money. It is not getting your tax payer dollars. I know this, because I googled. Having written about them before I went back to the TIGHAR website to see what they had to say about their alleged joint mission with the Navy.
This is what I found (pulled directly from their website) bolding is mine:

“As with previous TIGHAR expeditions, funding for this search is being raise entirely through contributions from private citizens, foundations and corporations. Lockheed Marting is leaidng a growing family of corporate sponsors. TIGHAR’s long-time sponsor FedEx is aboard with a major contribution in shipping services, and we are proud to announce that in addition to helping sponsor our expedition, Discovery Channel is producing a television special to air later this year documenting the search.

Underwater operations will be conducted for TIGHAR by Phoenix International, the U.S. Navy’s primary contractor for deep ocean search and recovery. We’ll sail from Honolulu July 2nd – the 75th anniversary of the Earhart disappearance. TIGHAR is deeply appreciative of the expressions of support voiced by Secretary Clinton, Secretary LaHood, Secretary Lambourne, Assistant Secretary Campbell, and Dr. Ballard.”

The U.S. Navy is not paying for TIGHAR’s expedition to try to locate Earhart’s plane. They say it themselves on their website, they are funded by private and corporate donations. The announcement by the State Department that they support and are backing the expedition is just that – a statement. The terms “support” and “backing” automatically make one think money. I thought money when I read the Telegraph’s headline and article. But in this case “support” and “backing” comes in the form of verbal acknowledgement and a few nice press pictures, not oodles of taxpayer dollars. It also probably helped get Phoenix International onboard to do the actual mapping/search, but they are going to be paid out of TIGHAR’s coffers.

Still, Earhart is just a stupid woman got herself killed by taking off on a poorly planned trip right? Even if all those commenters up in arms about their money going to something they think is silly have been mislead by the article there are still those that think Earhart doesn’t matter. I like the idea of going out there to try to figure out what really happened to Earhart because there is historic and social value to knowing how her story ended. She is an important figure in aviation history, women’s history, and United States history. She mattered. She mattered in her time, and for girls like me who read about her in books and start to believe that they can truly do anything with their life she still matters.
It isn’t a secret that I find Earhart inspiring. I’ve posted about her twice before this. Seeing her called dumb and foolish for trying to fly around the world annoys me. She took a risk, and she paid for it with her life. You mean to tell me no man has ever done that? She knew she could fail in her journey. She took off anyway. Was it a good choice? No. She made a bad choice, but the key word there is choice. She was a female aviator in the 1930’s who took her own life in her hands, she made choices. I admire Earhart because she lived her life in a way that gave her the ability to choose for herself. So I do support TIGHAR’s effort to find the plane and some conclusive evidence about what happened to her. I’m glad the State Department supports it too. I’m also glad that the funding is private, I think that is how it should be. Shame on the Telegraph for printing something so misleading.
If all I had to do was go to the TIGHAR website to find out how the State Department and Navy were involved in the expedition, there is no reason the Telegraph shouldn’t have done the same. Rather than making this a story about Earhart, the Telegraph article made this a story about government spending and waste. That isn’t the story at all. I would much rather have seen some real coverage of Earhart – the good and the bad – leading up to the 75th anniversary of her disappearance.

The Farting Dinosaur Debacle

While I know everyone in the science writing community is tuned into this story, I can bet that among my personal friends and family I am the only one who has “farting dinosaurs” as an item on their to-do list. While the science media machine has given us plenty of “say what now?” moments I found this story and how it has been handled and covered in the media face palm worthy enough to warrant a closer look.

Did Dinosaurs Fart Themselves to Death?

What the paper concludes is that the amount of methane released would have impacted climate. From the press release on this story: “Sauropod dinosaurs could in principle have produced enough of the greenhouse gas methane to warm the climate many millions of years ago, at a time when the Earth was warm and wet.” What about that says dinosaurs died from farting? There has been plenty of media attention for this story, and certainly some more even keeled coverage that actually bases the headline on the climate conclusions. Some examples include Never Stand Behind a Dinosaur on Climate Central, Dinosaur Farts May Have Caused Prehistoric Warming on RedOrbit or It’s A Gas: Dinosaur Flatulence May Have Warmed Earth on Yahoo/Reuters.The quick answer is no. Was a paper released regarding dinosaur farts? You bet (In the journal Cell Biology.) Did it conclude that farting led to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs? No. Of course with the headline potential a story like this poses how could some in the media resist, truly?

Apatosaurus louisae at the Carnegie Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Apatosaurus louisae at the Carnegie Museum via Wikimedia Commons

To draw conclusions about extinction and death when the topic of the paper is actually the amount of methane dinosaurs may have contributed to the atmosphere and thus climate change is misleading. In the media there has been the Fox News of it all whose headline “Dinosaurs ‘gassed’ themselves into extinction, British scientists say” goes right for the good stuff regardless of the paper’s conclusions. There has also been the necessary debunking on blogs like PZ Myers’ Pharyngula with “the reports of dinosaurs dying of farts are greatly exaggerated.”

Another interesting aspect of this story is the fact that is was subject to an embargo break. For the non-journalists among us an embargo is when journalists are informed about a story but asked to hold it for one reason or another. This is a common practice and in general journalists tend to abide by it, but not always. Often in science journalism the story is embargoed until the release of the paper in whatever journal it is being published. For more on this embargo break, check out the blog EmbargoWatch which does a consistently good job of keeping track of such story breaks.

Am I Science?

Scientists don’t really wear white lab coats. They usually don’t stand in front of old cabinets full of glass jars and beakers containing a rainbow of colored liquids. Unless someone has had an unfortunate bunsen burner accident it is unlikely that there is smoke wafting through the lab, or beakers bubbling over with a frothy white foam. If these images are what come to mind when you think of scientist, you need an update. It isn’t your fault, either.

Taking pictures or video to accompany my stories, I’ve had to ask myself how can I make a shot look more…sciencey? In the media we do a great disservice to scientists every time we stick them in the white coat peering into a microscope. Not that scientists don’t peer into microscopes, they do. But the stereotype has been allowed to run roughshod over every scientific discipline to the point where people barely recognize scientists who don’t fit the stereotype. Most scientists don’t fit the stereotype. But I’ve still dragged interviewees around a building until I find a suitable science looking backdrop. We all do it, and we need to stop.

Could you name a scientist? Seriously, do you know one? Heard of one? A single one? Can you name anyone actively engaged in research in the United States or around the globe? Do you realize that billions of your tax dollars pay for research, and you may very well not be able to name a single scientist other than your local meteorologist, or if you’re lucky (and a child of my generation) Bill Nye the Science Guy? I’m not trying to scold anyone here. I’m also not playing high and mighty. I can’t really name any importance finance and economic people, and they are important. So please don’t take this as me preaching. All of us could stand to be a little more aware of the fields we don’t work in directly. I’m plugging science and scientists here because, well, thats what I do. If someone wants to school me in finance, please do. I could use the lessons.

Anyway, I realize that not everyone loves science, but a huge chunk of money is devoted to research each year, don’t you want to know who gets it? The name Francis Collins should mean something to you. It may or may not, but for those who don’t know he is the Director of the National Institutes of Health. The NIH is the largest research funding organization in the United States. It has a fiscal year 2012 budget of more than $31 billion. But the people that are actually getting this money are largely out of the public eye. Why is that? I don’t have an answer exactly, but I can promise you it isn’t because scientists are boring.

We need to change the way we think about scientists. This is already happening in the science community itself where there are a lot of scientists who don’t want to be seen as lame. Even Collins has participated in some stereotype busting by posing for a magazine spread with Joe Perry from the band Aerosmith a few years back (Collins does play guitar himself) for a project called Rock Stars of Science. But even the best intentioned stereotype busting isn’t going to go anywhere if the only people paying attention to it are other scientists, science writers, and members of the public who already like science. We need to get the message to the people who still picture Doc Brown from Back to the Future when they think of a scientist. That being said, there are a lot of people involved with and working on correcting the stereotype. I wanted to take a moment to bring your attention to just one example, called I Am Science.

I Am Science started as a hashtag on Twitter (#iamscience). First suggested by marine biologist and science writer Kevin Zelnio, the hashtag was used to mark stories shared by scientists about the path they took to attaining their careers. It became obvious immediately that scientists are a wonderfully diverse group, finding their passion by any number of different paths. Scientists are people too. People with different backgrounds, and different interests. Sometimes wildly different interests, doing very different things but all of it is still science. They are all science.

I like I Am Science because it started with a Tweet, because it reflects the desire for scientists to try to share who they are failures and struggles included, and because it shatters the crazy mad scientist stereotype. To learn more about I Am Science read this wonderful post by Zelnio on Deep Sea News, check out the Tumblr he created to store all the tweets, if you are so inclined support I Am Science on Kickstarter (they’ve reached their goal, but can still use donations!) and watch this video.

The video was created by Mindy Weisberger and uses the song “Wicked Twisted Road” by Reckless Kelly. I hope all of this has inspired you to learn more about scientists. Look up people researching in the areas you find most interesting. Read their books. Attend their speeches or talks. Bust some stereotypes.

Not Who You Say You Are: Is "Ambush Journalism" A Good Tactic?

From NPR CEO Ron Schiller to Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker these days no public figure is safe from so called Ambush Journalism. The LA Times recently ran an article on what seems to be an emerging trend – the gathering of information by pretending to be someone else. Essentially, misleading the target of your investigation by not disclosing who you are, or what information you are after and then publishing the video or audio recording.

In the case of Ron Schiller and Scott Walker the public devoured these recordings, causing if nothing else embarrassment and a lot of hoopla. But is this method of trapping people when they think they are off the record effective? The LA Times’ James Rainey argues that it isn’t, because even though the recordings aren’t exactly flattering they are A. easily manipulated and B. don’t always produce the intended result.

Rainey calls ambush journalism, “secret recordings and ham acting designed to draw out the worst in others.” In the case of Ron Schiller, Rainey (and NPR itself) argues that the tape show the NPR fundraiser towing the line between the organization’s journalistic activities and their fundraising activities by insisting that that NPR doesn’t bend its coverage to suit financial donors. According to Rainey, the tape succeeded in taking down Schiller because he also made statements about liberals being more intelligent and the Republican party being full of gun-loving extremists.

But not all ambush journalism is successful in taking down a target. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been a media target due to his attack on union bargaining rights and the subsequent protests at the capitol for the last month. Blogger Ian Murphy called Walker in February and claimed to be Republican campaign donor David Koch. Murphy was able to get Walker to admit that he considered planting trouble makers into the crowd of protestors, but they never actually did.

Really all Murphy accomplished was making Walker look arrogant, the phone call hoax just served to get the already over exposed governor into the media even more. All this makes me wonder if trying to trap targets by pretending to be a friend or ally when really you are trying to get them on record saying something incriminating is a good direction for investigative journalism to be heading.

Journalism is supposed to be about transparency. I believe journalists need to admit who they are and their affiliation. Even citizen journalists who intend to gather information and disseminate what they find out need to be honest about who they are. I don’t think there is a clear sense of right and wrong when a lie is exposed by a lie. But is there still room for morality and right vs. wrong in journalism these days?

Is the only way to get the “real” story to lie about who you are? I don’t think so. I think good investigative journalism, reporting, and writing can turn up the facts and paint a clear picture of a person or issue without having to trick them into saying something incriminating.

Maybe I’m idealistic but I don’t think you have to tell lies to get to the truth. I think if there is something incriminating to be found, hitting the books, checking the paper trail and following through with as many sources of possible will turn up the same information you might get out of trapping a target with an audio or video recording. I think ambush journalism is only necessary when we stop putting in the time it takes to be real reporters. If you have to trick people into talking to you – you just aren’t creating good journalism.

Defining & Finding the Higgs Boson Particle

I know that I love on the BBC quite a bit, I make no bones about it being my preferred source for daily science news coverage. However, the article “LHC has two years to find Higgs” is an unfortunate departure from the BBC‘s typically stellar science coverage.

The article caught my attention because I’m already familiar with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) a particle collider operating underground along the France/Switzerland border. A particle collider takes protons (a small part of an atom), runs them around at speeds close to the speed of light, and crashes the particles into each other. Hence the name, particle (the protons) collider (the smashing them together part.)

The other part of the BBC article’s title that caught my eye was “Higgs” which refers to the Higgs Boson Particle. The Higgs is a theoretical particle – meaning that it is a particle that physicists THINK exists, but they don’t actually know for sure, it might not exist at all. In trying to understand the universe and what gives all matter mass, physicists have come up with several theories.

One of these theories is the Standard Model – which is based on the existence of the Higgs. If it exists the Higgs would explain how particles get mass. The LHC is looking for the Higgs by analyzing the teraelectronvolts (TeV – a measurement of energy) that would be emitted by the process through which particles get mass. The LHC should be able to detect the TeV of the Higgs – if it exists.

Part of one LHC tunnel. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I realize that the BBC’s article is clearly an update piece about ongoing research, but it just glosses over some very important explanations about the LHC and the Higgs. If I didn’t know that LHC was a particle collider or that the Higgs is a theoretical particle I would have no idea what this article is about from the title. Even as you go through the body of the article, there is no background information. To say that particle physics is complicated is an understatement. All the more reason why this article needs background information to make it understandable. As it is, this article is not appropriate for lay audiences.

The timely component of this article, or the reason why an update on the LHC is needed, is that researchers have announced that if the Higgs isn’t detected by the end of 2012 they will conclude that the particle does not exist. If the Higgs doesn’t exist then the Standard Model is not the way by which the universe is organized, meaning researchers would have to re-define their understanding of sub-atomic physics.

This is a news worthy update, however I feel like the reporter didn’t do the story justice. Even the quotes do nothing to explain what LHC is, what the Higgs is, or what the significance of its existence or non-existence would be. I have a particular problem with the paragraph:
“According to Professor Tom LeCompte of the Argonne National Laboratory, US, who works at the LHC: “The most likely place for the Higgs to be is in a very good place for us to discover it in the next two years.”

I have no idea what this quote means. “The most likely place for the Higgs to be is in a very good place…” What? My best guess is that the scientist is trying to say that research at LHC has progressed to the point that if the Higgs isn’t detected in two more years, it doesn’t exist. But obviously, that is NOT what he actually said.

This is a prime example of a quote that shouldn’t have been used. Rather than just using the confusing quote the reporter could have asked the source to clarify or say what they meant in a different way. The reporter could also have paraphrased what the researcher was trying to say. Just because an intelligent and successful scientist makes a statement, doesn’t mean that statement is gold. As a writer you have to decide what quotes add to the story, and what quotes are just confusing. You shouldn’t put in quotes just to have quotes.

I realize that this is just a short article and it isn’t trying to do an in depth analysis of the LHC, the Higgs, or particle physics, but that doesn’t mean that background information and good quotes should go out the window. This topic is particularly complex and nuanced, and I’ve struggled to provide a decent explanation here – but just because something is hard doesn’t mean you don’t have to even TRY to explain it clearly.

I think the BBC article could have been a lot better if more effort was put into trying to at least define the LHC and the Higgs for the reader. After all, the reader isn’t going to care that some particle might not exist if you don’t explain what that particle is and why it matters.

If you want to learn more about the LHC, I can’t help but recommend the following video. I still get a kick out of watching physicists try to rap and dance. You will find the explanation of the Higgs in the video far more complex than mine. Physics is out of my realm of comfortable understanding – but I gave it a shot and tried to keep it as basic as possible.