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

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).

0 thoughts on “Bad Astronomy on Bad Mars Reporting (Or Just Bad Mars Headlines)?

  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. 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.]

  3. 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.

  4. 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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