Casey DreierAug 14, 2012

Curiosity and the Media: A Response

There were many great comments to my last post talking about the the misrepresentation of cost of NASA’s Curiosity rover, but one stood out that I feel the need to respond to in greater depth. Here it is (printed in full save one final sentence that was a greeting):

“I really want to like this, because I agree with almost everything you say. But as a reporter, this blanket condescension of "the media" really rankles. If you cherrypick your news sources, sure, it looks like The Media has all swallowed one narrative. But "the media has all swallowed one narrative" is also a narrative to swallow. Neither are true. Anyway, the solution can't be for reporters to just stop asking "can we afford this?" The public is probably thinking it, and it's our job to answer those questions. Sometimes journalists ask questions we very well know the answer to because we want it to come from a more authoritative voice. (I unfailingly get better quotes when I pretend I don't know any physics.) Your suggestion at the end for how scientists could respond is a useful way to move the conversation forward -- scientists can actually shape how "the media" tell their stories, and I think have a responsibility to do so. But trust that some of us know what we're doing.” - Lisa

I wanted to post this because Lisa is spot-on when she calls me out for my own lazy attack on “the media”.

It’s true, I grouped a variety of types and sizes of media sources into one statement, ignoring the differences between, say, New Scientist and the Wall Street Journal. I was not careful enough in my language and unintentionally dismissed the hard work of many journalists who present space news with the highest order of professionalism. And honestly, my intention was not to write a diatribe against the media, though I admit the post essentially reads that way. Even using the phrase, “the media,” brought in many more overtones that got in the way of my point, and thank god I didn’t use something like “the mainstream media” anywhere.


The reason I brought up the media in the first place was to express my frustration with a particular style of reporting on NASA missions which seems to be to be very prevalent in most major media outlets. Again, I don’t want to use “mainstream media” here, because that muddles the issue. What I’m trying to focus on is the largest media outlets that reach the broadest segment of the public. It is from these sources that most people in the country will hear about NASA missions. Most public judgements about the validity, viability, and value of these missions will be formed from the infrequent stories about NASA that follow a major mission milestone (like a landing) and temporarily pop up above the information noise of everyday life.

But these sources tend to generate the stories that relentlessly emphasize the cost of each mission. This isn’t because of some agenda on their part, but from what I see as a fundamentally lazy approach to telling the story. The price tag becomes a basic physical attribute of the mission, requiring repetition in any description: “NASA’s 2.5 billion dollar rover...” or “the 2.5 billion dollar mission to the Red Planet...” and so forth.

The number is almost always given without context, and very few other subjects in the news receive such a prominent numerical treatment of their cost with every mention. This endless repetition of cost is surely one of the driving factors behind the public’s erroneous perception that NASA’s budget represents an enormous fraction of federal spending. It also creates a feedback loop, where sure, journalists are just mentioning the price because that’s on everyone’s mind, but it’s on everyone’s mind because they are constantly told about the price.

To get some cursory data on the problem, I plugged the following two queries into LexisNexis, a database that provides high-quality searches into news stories:

1) Mars AND caps(nasa) AND MSL OR Curiosity AND billion (retrieve news stories that mention Curiosity and its cost)

2) Mars AND caps(nasa) AND MSL OR Curiosity AND NOT billion (retrieve news stories that mention Curiosity and do not mention its price)

I restricted the dates for stories to after 2005 (pretty much when MSL was on the radar as a project) and to all English news sources that represent newspapers, magazines, or transcripts of news reports.

The results are revealing:

Plot of the number of articles that mention Curiosity and its cost vs. the number of articles that mention Curiosity and not its cost
Articles with Curiosity's Cost vs. Articles without its Cost
This breaks down the number of newspaper articles, magazine articles, and news transcripts from the LexisNexis results of the two queries mentioned above. The totals are 1202 referencing the cost and 149 articles that do not.

This cursory data shows that articles that mention Curiosity’s cost are eight times more common than articles that don’t mention the cost. Does this not seem excessive?

What I want to change, and this is the real point of my previous post, is this attribution of price to every single mention of the mission. Articles and stories that discuss the history of or funding debates behind the mission certainly deserve discussion of the cost, but not a mission update or a newly-announced scientific discovery. For example, you aren’t always reminded of the State Department’s budget ($50 billion) every time Hillary Clinton makes a foreign policy visit. Why? Because it’s not the point of the story.

Lisa’s post was helpful, in that she does suggest that scientists *can* change the direction of news stories by how they emphasize their facts. This brings me back to my original plea:

Scientists need to be confident that they earn the funding they have and deserve more. They should never shirk away from defending their budgets.

People like you and me need to remind our friends and family that Curiosity *is* a cheap mission on the scale of government spending (it’s a cheap mission on the scale of Google’s quarterly earnings, even!). We have to take responsibility for changing the narrative that we can’t afford planetary exploration and discovery. We can.

The Time is Now.

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