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Matin Durrani: January 2009 Archives

The Sun and Mars

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The Sun’s so-called scoop

By Matin Durrani

Scientists have a habit of complaining that there’s not enough science in the mainstream press. So I suppose they should be glad that Britain’s best-selling newspaper, The Sun, had a story on their front page last Thursday (15 January) emblazoned with the headline “Life on Mars”.

The story was refering to a paper in Science by a team of NASA scientists that reported the finding of methane in the Martian atmosphere. And as the Sun (the real one that is) destroys methane, could it be that living organsims are constantly regenerating the gas?

Turns out that the story is not the scoop it seems: scientists already had evidence for methane on Mars, so this latest research only confirms those findings.

Moreover, according to Paul Sutherland - the journalist who wrote the story - Science was not happy that The Sun had broken the embargo on the story, which was set at 7 p.m. UK time on Thursday 15 January. Indeed, he says that Science staff rang The Sun at 3 a.m. local time, demanding the story be removed from the paper’s website.

But Sutherland denies that he ever broke an embargo. As he explains on his blog, he simply put two and two together based on NASA’s original press release, along with a couple of Google searches and a chat with an astronomer friend.

Now when a newspaper or website reports on a story before an embargo deadline, what normally happens is that the organisation that imposed the deadline lifts the embargo so that other media outlets can report the story too. But Science maintained the embargo because, it said, this “unfortunate tabloid teaser” contained nothing from the research paper and was “a purely speculative narrative”.

Which says it all about The Sun’s coverage of science I guess. Still, fair play to them: they got planetary science on the front page and it seems churlish to complain.

But the final twist in the tale is that Nature, which each week sets embargoes of its own, reported the story back in October last year

What goes around comes around.