Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Follow-up or cover-up, when is extensive coverage excessive coverage

Last Wednesday night, the LA Times tweeted this headline: “Massive solar flare ripples sun’s surface, storms speed to Earth”. 

The following day, another headline: “Solar storm is a bit of a dud -- but wait, there’s more to come.”

And on Friday: “Solar storm that seemed to fizzle gains new strength.”
After today’s class discussion surrounding the New York Times piece on arsenic, I thought this was an interesting find.
A solar flare from 2011, courtesy of phunk_ee

The articles’ author, Amy Hubbard, used Alex Young, a solar physicist at NASA, as a source for each of her three articles. Much like the New York Times journalist, she reported findings, except that when results didn't go as expect, she reported again. And again.
On Wednesday night’s piece, she mentioned that this “big blob of magnetized material” was being “hurled” toward Earth as a result of two distinct blasts caused by solar flares. These blasts were ranked 2 or 3, moderate to slightly strong, on a scale of 1 to 5. 
She contextualized that we are currently in an 11-year solar cycle which began in 2008, and that solar activity is expected to peak next year. Hubbard, citing Young, then explained how this magnetic field (the magnetized material) might affect Earth: “GPS and communications problems” or more “pleasant” auroras that would be spotted as far south as Illinois.  I was excited about the potential auroras, but one of my friends that had clicked on my retweet of the LA Times link didn’t feel the same way. A girl who avoids apocalyptic movies and will plug her ears at mention of the Mayan calendar, she was terrified. 
Thursday’s article sounded a lot to me like that last minute attempt 3 a.m. informercials offer, “But wait, there’s more!”  
She reported that the solar storm fell short of expectations, that there was “no impact on the bulk power system,” but hey, the auroras were beautiful. Then suddenly: “Although this solar storm fell short of predictions, you may want to brace yourself for the years ahead.” The entire tone of the article shifts from one of ominousness as she explains what peak activity in 2013 and 2014 could potentially look like.
Friday’s article is a mere 207 words. Hubbard essentially reports that despite previous notions that the solar storm had “fizzled away,” there was more activity Thursday night with resulting temporary radio blackouts and more auroras.
The Associated Press also published a brief on Tuesday’s solar storm, though it was just that: a brief.   The article, “Sun erupts: solar storm heads toward Earth,” reported that effects should hit Earth as early as Thursday, what these said effects are, and that it was the biggest eruption in five years. There is no looking ahead or context. There’s not even a quote.
Then just yesterday US News released the story, “Solar flares to continue pounding Earth until 2014.”  It contextualized the individual solar flares as part of a larger solar region responsible for increased activity, and the fact that this region continues to grow larger. The second half of the article focuses on the 11-year solar cycle, and the peak activity will occur in the second half of 2013.
US News also didn’t rely on NASA for direct quotes, but rather a deputy project scientist for the Solar Dynamics Observatory.
I bring these articles to your attention because I think that it further highlights some of our class discussion today regarding what’s “newsworthy” in terms of science. This LA Times coverage is interesting to me. It seems that in a desperate attempt to find something “newsworthy,” they were a bit too hasty, hence the additional two articles. Is it possible that a follow-up can turn into an early morning infomercial cover-up? 
Last week we tried to sell you Oxi Clean Formula 1. After significant reports of customer disappointment, we’re returning your money. 
(Following week) We’re here to tell you that Oxi Clean Formula 1 does in fact work, and it’s proven long term!

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