Dear Curtis Brainard,
President of the WFSJ
I am writing this open letter to you and fellow science journalists to raise a concern I had about the press announcement of the possible Planet 9 on Wednesday 20 January.
The first time that the vast majority of science journalists knew about the story was when details of the research were published at Noon EST in Astronomy Journal published by the Institute of Physics.
However it emerged that the Caltech press office had briefed 12 US journalists in advance of publication and allowed them to question the researchers. As it happened one of the journalists broke the agreed embargo two hours early. Consequently the remaining 11 journalists posted their stories shortly afterwards.
Other science journalists covering the story were then under enormous pressure to post and broadcast their stories on this controversial and subtle piece of research which was of huge public interest.
Apart from the chosen 12 those working to news deadlines were denied the opportunity to speak to the researchers, obtain independent viewpoints or have time to properly digest the published research paper.
The tactic of telling only a select group of reporters about a forthcoming paper is a legitimate one, I think, for highly specific discoveries of interest perhaps only to specialist media. But it is bound to be inappropriate when we are discussing a putative major planet in our own solar system.
The outcome of taking this approach seems to be that the vast majority of the world’s science journalists, including many ABSW members, were disadvantaged by comparison with a small group. The inevitable result was a scramble for the story which made it impossible for the reporting to be as good as we would all have wished, disadvantaging the interested public as well as science journalists themselves.
No doubt the Caltech press office adopted an alternative strategy at the request of the researchers to maintain high standards of reporting. They may also have thought that containing the information they believed that they would minimise the risk of an embargo breach.
The reverse occurred. One of the 12 pre-briefed journalists broke the embargo. All other journalists scrambled and put together hastily put together articles without having the opportunity to properly read the research, talk to the authors or obtain the views of the wider community.
I hope that any future discoveries of this magnitude will be released to the world’s media on a level playing field that allows us to do as good a job as possible in reporting them to the wider world.
I would be interested in the views of those involved in your member associations.
Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)