Bad Astronomy on Bad Mars Reporting (Or Just Bad Mars Headlines)?

By Carl Zimmer | January 19, 2009 11:47 am

Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait reveals some of the astonishingly bad coverage last week about methane on Mars, giving people the impression that we’ve got proof-positive of life on the Red Planet. But I think Carol Collins Petersen raises an important point: it’s the headlines that were truly noxious. If you stripped the headlines off of the articles Phil lambastes, they’d range from acceptable to mediocre. At least, that’s my non-scientific analysis. Unfortunately, headline writers are harder to track down than reporters (who don’t write headlines and rarely get to vet them).


Comments (6)

  1. Carl, that’s a very good point about the headline writers. Back when I worked at a newspaper I would watch writers grind their teeth at some of the headlines the copy desk guys came up with. Happened to me a few times, too, and I used to bribe the headline guys with cookies to let me help them come up with suitable headlines. But you can’t always do that…

    Some of the stories I saw last week eventually got to the meat of the matter down in the fifth graf or so, but by then the damage had been done…

    Carolyn Collins Petersen

  2. Mars has significant deuterium enrichment, 5X the D/H ratio of Earth. Does it have NMRs and H-bombs? Shall we mine deuterium?

    Theory predicts what observation tells it to predict.

  3. Hi Carl,
    Looks like the “methane on Mars” link is broken. Thanks for blogging about bad Mars headlines though! I love the blog, please keep up the good work.

    Dave M.

    [Carl: Thanks, Dave. I fixed the link–just back to my own post on the discovery.]

  4. Sergio

    Unfortunately, sometimes those truly bad headlines are the only way people make it past the headline. If the headline is boring (accurate) nobody will continue to read the article. This is advertising 101 and it works.
    Scientists should bite the bullet, if you want to make it in the popular media to reach the “masses” you’ll need to employ popular media strategies, otherwise, these news will remain only for those with a subscription to Nature and Science.

  5. During one of my stints in newspaper work I discovered that the features editor had two favorite headlines and tried to use at least one of them in each weekly issue. If the topic was music, or islands, or anything remotely connected to either, he ran “Island Beat.” If it was a restaurant review, or involved coffee, or people meeting for any reason, the header was “Cafe Society.”


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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