The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Sean O'Keefe
NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe has been at the center of the media coverage surrounding the Columbia investigation. (credit: NASA)

Columbia and the media: a one-month report card

How have the print and electronic media handled the Columbia tragedy?

The month of February 2003 will not be remembered fondly by most people. A plane crash in Iran killed over 270 people. A subway fire in South Korea killed more than 130. In Chicago, 21 people died trying to escape a nightclub, while a few days later nearly 100 perished in a Rhode Island nightclub blaze. A powerful winter storm dumped over half a meter of snow from Washington DC to Boston, while another deposited a glaze of ice in the south-central US. Terrorist alerts prompted runs on plastic sheeting and duct tape throughout America, as the drums of war beat ever louder in Iraq and North Korea became an increasingly-worrisome nuclear wild card.

Yet, other than Iraq, the one event that consistently attracted more media attention was the tragedy that unfolded on the morning of February 1, when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry over north-central Texas, killing all seven members of its crew. In the grander scheme of things this was a minor event, claiming only a tiny fraction of the lives as the other tragedies of the month; more people died in ordinary traffic accidents in the US the day of the Columbia tragedy than in the shuttle. Yet, for whatever reason—the rarity of such events, the symbolism of the shuttle and national prestige, or genuine interest in space exploration—the investigation of the Columbia accident remains newsworthy long after other tragedies have faded from front pages and nightly newscasts.

As editor of, a web site that links to space news coverage of all kinds published online, I have been closely following the coverage of the accident and its aftermath. During February I added links to approximately 3,000 articles published online, several times more than a normal month. The vast majority of these articles—perhaps 90 percent—dealt with Columbia. While I make every effort to be as inclusive as possible, there are many more articles, from smaller publications or in languages other than English, which are excluded from this total. Nonetheless, I have read enough articles, as well as watched coverage on television, to get a good feel of how the media, at least in the US, has covered the accident.

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.

Bigger is (usually) better

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, 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, 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.

Hit-and-run journalism

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.)

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