Science news: soon to be a major motion picture?

Here’s how SPACE.com Senior Writer Clara Moskowitz reported on yesterday’s MRO press conference. Headline: “Hints of Water Spark Fresh Hope for Life on Mars.”

Lead: “The evidence of possible liquid water on Mars, announced today (Aug. 4), has scientists newly excited about the Red Planet’s potential to host some form of primitive life, scientists say.”

Further: “All life on this planet relies on liquid water, and experts think extraterrestrials likely do, too. And Mars, as the planet next in line after Earth from the sun, is one of the top potential habitats for ET.”…‘I think this is an eye-opening discovery that will really help us begin the planning process for future missions specifically looking for signs of the presence of life on Mars,’ biogeochemist Lisa Pratt…said… ‘It is our first chance to see an environment on Mars that might allow for the expression of an active biological process if there is presently life on Mars’….”

A nice story, available at: http://www.space.com/12549-mars-water-hints-extraterrestrial-life-search.html

It gets more interesting when one checks out the hyperlinks in the story. So let’s go down that rabbit hole….

The hyperlink from “presence of life on Mars” takes one to SPACE.com’s March 7 story, “Five Bold Claims of Alien Life,” which leads off with a questionable claim of evidence of extraterrestrial life found on Earth, published this spring in a questionable (and now-defunct) online journal by a researcher known for making questionable claims about extraterrestrial life. (See my post of March 23.)

FAQ: What the Possibility of Water on Mars Means” takes one to a site called “Life’s Little Mysteries.” LLM’s “FAQ” includes a hyperlink to a February entry on LLM, “What are the ingredients of life?” “What are the ingredients of life?”, which cites the controversial arsenic-life story of December 2010. (See my last post.)

The writers for SPACE.com and “Life’s Little Mysteries” routinely post notices of their stories on Twitter. Both sites are on Twitter and Facebook. (Isn’t everybody?)

SPACE.com and “Life’s Little Mysteries” both are owned by TechMediaNetwork, which also owns the news and information sites LiveScience, TechNews Daily, and Our Amazing Planet, where space-related stories show up often. TechMediaNetwork syndicates (that is, sells) content from its sites to Yahoo, AOL, Fox News, CBS News, and MSNBC. TechMediaNetwork’s pitch to prospective “partners” states: “We’re not just an ad network we’re a Monetization Network. We’re a service-oriented network that works closely with you to increase your Revenue per Visitor, or RPM. We are the fastest-growing web property in the Tech News category and we are currently the third-largest according to comScore.”

CBS (2009 revenue: $13 billion) is one of the “Big Six” media megacorporations, along with News Corp., TimeWarner, Walt Disney, Viacom, and General Electric. Fox is owned, as we all know by now, by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (2009 revenue: $30.4 billion). AOL is owned by TimeWarner (2009 revenue: $25.8 billion). MSNBC is owned by General Electric (2009 revenue: $157 billion). Yahoo is a publicly traded company not (yet) owned) by any of the Big Six (2009 revenue: $6.5 billion).

This latest water/life/Mars story provides a good example of how a news story – or, more precisely, a single journalist’s take on a news story – can propagate throughout the online universe quickly and easily. It also provides a good example of how what we still call “science journalism” is changing before our very eyes. (And just to be clear, I am not criticizing Clara Moskowitz.) Less news and information, more entertainment, and definitely more ads.

While conglomeration of media ownership is good for media owners, it is not good for anybody else. It’s definitely not good for science journalism.

Two reliable sources of information about the state of science journalism are the National Association of Science Writers and the Society of Environmental Journalists(Doctor Linda is a member of both groups and vouches for them.)

The moral of today’s post: Know Thy Media.

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