Columbia and the media: a one-month report card
How have the print and electronic media handled the Columbia tragedy?
by Jeff Foust
|For whatever reason, the investigation of the Columbia accident remains newsworthy long after other tragedies have faded from front pages and nightly newscasts.|
By and large, the media has done a decent job reporting the accident and investigation. While there are some tendencies towards sensationalism (common for articles of all kinds, given the hypercompetitive media environment today) most media outlets have provided a factual, balanced account. This may be in part because NASA has been far more open with the media than during Challenger in 1986: by freely sharing information NASA has largely avoided an adversarial relationship with the media.
Prior to Columbia space was largely ignored by the mass media save for the occasional launch or scientific discovery (or notable failure). Regular coverage was relegated to niche media: print publications like Space News and Aviation Week, and online publications SPACE.com, SpaceRef, and Spaceflight Now. A few newspapers, including Florida Today, the Houston Chronicle, and the Orlando Sentinel, had reporters whose beat included, or consisted entirely of, space. Television was Minow’s vast wasteland in terms of space coverage, with the exception of CNN’s Miles O’Brien.
This model worked when space was of relatively minor important importance, but broke down entirely when the Columbia was lost. Within hours the major media outlets, such as the broadcast and cable news networks, and major national newspapers, switched into high gear, dispatching reporters to Florida, Houston, and the debris recovery teams in east Texas, while producers behind the scenes combed their Rolodexes for any expert who could come on air or be quoted about the tragedy. This allowed hours of uninterrupted television coverage in the days after the accident, while newspapers filled entire sections with articles and photos.
The space-centric media, on the other hand, struggled to keep up because of their small size; they could not call upon the resources of a much-larger network or publication. As a result, they have filed far fewer articles than their mainstream counterparts, although the articles they do publish tend to be more detailed. Even SPACE.com, arguably the best-known online space news publication, has relied extensively on AP wire stories to supplement its own coverage of the accident and investigation.
One disadvantage of the large media outlets is that while they have the resources to cover a story like Columbia in detail, their staffs don’t have the experience to cover it knowledgably. This results in what I call “hit-and-run journalism”: inexperienced reports struggle to cover a field they know little about, do a story or two about it, and move on, oblivious to any errors or misunderstandings about it. One week it’s Columbia, the next it could be anything from Iraq to Michael Jackson’s nose.
|The space-centric media struggled to keep up because of their small size; they could not call upon the resources of a much-larger network or publication.|
You could see this in some of the reporting in the days immediately following the accident. On Monday, February 3, the federal government released its proposed fiscal year 2004 budget, which included nearly $15.5 billion for NASA. While most correctly reported that the budget was completed well in advance of the accident, some reporters, unaware of the budget process, tried to draw a connection between the proposed funding increase and the accident.
This type of hit-and-run analysis was particularly egregious in commentary published by people who ordinarily would have nothing to say or write about space exploration. For example, Gersh Kuntzman, a columnist for Newsweek’s web site, ripped into both NASA and SPACEHAB, the company that built the research module flown by Columbia, in a February 3 piece. Kuntzman’s research appeared to be limited to a brief review of SPACEHAB’s web site and the list of experiments carried on Columbia, criticizing those that, in his expert opinion, seemed odd, commercial, or simply sponsored by Europeans; one was even called “elementary school propaganda”. The thrust of Kuntzman’s argument was about how terrible it was that a company like SPACEHAB was trying to make money off of NASA, without mentioning that companies far larger than SPACEHAB make even more money selling goods and services to the space agency. (Attention to detail, it turns out, is not one of Kuntzman’s strengths: in a more recent column he wrote that “in the 1960s, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young lamented ‘four dead in Ohio’—the peace protesters gunned down at Kent State”, even though the shootings took place in 1970.)