AAS 195th Meeting, January 2000
Session 101. Astronomy Education
Oral, Friday, January 14, 2000, 2:00-3:30pm, Regency V

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[101.09] Accuracy of Press Reports in Astronomy

B. E. Schaefer (Yale), K. Hurley (U. C. Berkeley), R. J. Nemiroff (Mich. Tech. U.), D. Branch (U. Oklahoma), S. Perlmutter (U. C. Berkeley), M. W. Schaefer (Yale), G. J. Consolmagno (Vatican Obs.), H. McSween (U. Tennessee), R. Strom (U. Arizona)

Most Americans learn about modern science from press reports, while such articles have a bad reputation among scientists. We have performed a study of 403 news articles on three topics (gamma-ray astronomy, supernovae, and Mars) to quantitatively answer the questions 'How accurate are press reports of astronomy?' and 'What fraction of the basic science claims in the press are correct?' We have taken all articles on the topics from five news sources (UPI, NYT, S&T, SN, and 5 newspapers) for one decade (1987-1996). All articles were evaluated for a variety of errors, ranging from the fundamental to the trivial. For 'trivial' errors, S&T and SN were virtually perfect while the various newspapers averaged roughly one trivial error every two articles. For meaningful errors, we found that none of our 403 articles significantly mislead the reader or misrepresented the science. So a major result of our study is that reporters should be rehabilitated into the good graces of astronomers, since they are actually doing a good job. For our second question, we rated each story with the probability that its basic new science claim is correct. We found that the average probability over all stories is 70%, regardless of source, topic, importance, or quoted pundit. How do we reconcile our findings that the press does not make significant errors yet the basic science presented is 30% wrong? The reason is that the nature of news reporting is to present front-line science and the nature of front-line science is that reliable conclusions have not yet been reached. So a second major result of our study is to make the distinction between textbook science (with reliability near 100%) and front-line science which you read in the press (with reliability near 70%).

The author(s) of this abstract have provided an email address for comments about the abstract: schaefer@grb2.physics.yale.edu

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