Spaceflight Insider

Opinion: Mutants, airstrikes and more: Space ‘fake news’ on the rise

Between erroneous reports that a Falcon 9 first stage was demolished via a U.S. Air Force airstrike, that the Mobile Launcher Platform is leaning and bent and that NASA astronaut Scott Kelly's DNA was changed during his year on orbit - the problem of negligent reporting appears to be increasing. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

Between erroneous reports that a Falcon 9 first stage was demolished via a U.S. Air Force airstrike, that the Mobile Launcher Platform is leaning and bent and that NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s DNA was changed during his year on orbit – the problem of negligent reporting appears to be increasing. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

Fake news, a relatively new term that has entered the public lexicon. Stories regarding space flight have recently seen an uptick in incorrect information being reported and given the complexity of the subject matter, it might be understandable—but it is also preventable.

Between reports of a Falcon 9 first stage being demolished via an “airstrike” to challenged assessments that the Space Launch System’s Mobile Launcher is “leaning” and “twisting,” media outlets appear to be getting it wrong.

Recently, as was reported by The Atlantic, CNN, Newsweek and the Huffington Post, it was stated that astronaut Scott Kelly’s one year stay on the International Space Station had changed seven percent of his DNA. If that were the case, not only would he no longer be Mark Kelly’s twin brother, he would not be human. This information also appeared on the Today Show, USA Today, Time, and People.

The Twin Study” reviewed how Scott Kelly’s body reacted to his time on the ISS. His brother, Mark Kelly, served as a “control” back on Earth.

Scott Kelly was selected to partake in his flight on board the International Space Station in 2012 along with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko. The pair served on the orbiting lab from March 2015 through March of 2016. 

After a year on orbit, seven percent of Scott Kelly’s gene expression had changed. Many in the media reported this change of genetic expression as a change of his genetic code

To be fair, genetics, space flight and similar topics are complicated by their very nature and mistakes are understandable. However, it appears NASA posted a report on Jan. 31, 2018 (before the above-noted articles were published), that clearly states that what changed was the gene’s expression, and that: 

“The change related to only 7 percent of the gene expression that changed during spaceflight that had not returned to preflight after six months on Earth. This change of gene expression is very minimal.”

This raises the question of why such outlets as CNN, The Huffington Post and Newsweek – don’t appear to have performed due diligence and reported what NASA had stated publicly. In terms of the other stories mentioned, with the proliferation of news outlets, some of whom have no trained journalists, more and more factually devoid or confused information is being released.

Case in point, a report appearing on AmericaSpace.com stated the first stage of a Falcon 9 that carried out an ocean landing was disposed of via a U.S. Air Force airstrike. While exciting and guaranteed to gain views, that report was 100 percent false.

SpaceFlight Insider reached out to the U.S. Air Force and SpaceX and within half an hour had received the correct information, something organizations such as NASASpaceFlight also appeared unable to accomplish. There was no airstrike, a private company disposed of the Falcon 9’s first stage.

Normally highly-reliable sources such as NASASpaceFlight and Popular Mechanics also stated that the Mobile Launcher would only be used once and that it was twisting and leaning. Unfortunately, those reports were contradicted by a NASA official involved on the structure’s production.

“The mobile launch platform is not leaning and it is built within the standard steel design and construction codes,” Darrel Foster, NASA’s chief project manager of exploration ground systems said during a recent presentation who went on to note at least two missions the platform would be used on.

Given the complexity of space and science reporting, such missteps are understandable. CNN would well be within its rights to expect a pass on this – if they hadn’t reported that Space Shuttle Columbia had been traveling 18 times the speed of light when it was lost in 2003 during STS-107 (to date, no one has ever traveled faster than the speed of light – let alone 18 times that speed, some 186,000 miles per second). Columbia was lost traveling 18 times the speed of sound.

Longtime CNN space reporter John Zarella now runs his own pizzeria near Port Canaveral and another space and science correspondent, Miles O’Brien, was fired by CNN after 16 years with the outlet. 

When organizations lose individuals who speak the language of science and understand that words can have layers and can then translate that complexity into basic English? Losing those people means that the layer of comprehension of what is being discussed can also lost.

So, if posting stories based on “anonymous” sources, tweets and rumors can lead to these type of reporting, why do it? Sites as large as CNN or as small as some blog are ranked on the amount of views they receive. With the proliferation of websites, a rush to post articles to ensure that those viewers tune in – could be part of the problem.

For some established authors who work in the space industry, it all comes down to the basics.

“I wouldn’t use an anonymous source unless I knew the person’s background, motivation and ‘angle,’ and I believed them,” aerospace author David Harland told SpaceFlight Insider. “In my realm, which is book-writing, I rely on archive sources rather than interviews. You could say I focus on facts rather than opinions.”

Indeed, one of the key factors about each of the articles noted above is that they touched upon “key” elements within the space industry. Mention a NewSpace company, NASA’s new Space Launch System or a mutated astronaut and it’s guaranteed to gain attention.  

For those familiar with the requirements of journalism, the future appears bleak. Keep in mind that mistakes happen and that we are not attempting to suggest that perfection is the standard. However, by stating that a year in space could change one’s genetic makeup so far as to make them not human or not bothering to do the minimum to ensure that what is published bears some semblance to reality, the very basics—journalism 101—is not being done.  

“Low level internet reporters get paid by hits, so it is all about sensationalism,” Robert Brand, the manager of Robert Brand Space News told SpaceFlight Insider. “The truth goes out the door. Many serious reporters leave, and are replaced by younger reporters that are prepared to work in the new high pressure environment. Stories that are proven wrong are ignored and no longer retracted. Without a penalty, things will not change.”
 
Other authors within the industry noted their disappointment in the lack of basic scientific understanding and “journalism 101” that was displayed by the array of outlets that misreported about these events and, in so doing, failed at their jobs.
 
“You know, I saw that headline about Scott Kelly, and to be honest I basically believed it for awhile. I was like, ‘What, really? Whoa.’ But then later on in the day I was thinking about it more. And I was going, ‘You know what? How can that even possibly be?’ And you read into the story for just a little bit, I mean you actually, like, take five minutes out of your day to check, and it falls apart,” Jay Gallentine, the author of Ambassadors from Earth and Infinity Beckoned told SpaceFlight Insider. “The facts just aren’t there. It’s not real. And I guess I’m really saddened.”
 
Given some ‘outlets’ are staffed by employees of aerospace companies, perhaps one has to accept that ethics, like considerations pertaining to conflicts of interest, no longer are thought to be important. 
 
The problem with this is that the general public is not versed in specifics concerning space, engineering and genetics and rely on the media to provide them with the correct information. Now? The public that reads these articles, but who are not familiar with the science or have the opportunity to follow up on the story, will believe things that are factually false.
 
“…What the news really IS, has definitely changed. The news used to come from a relatively low number of sources, and those sources were everybody’s sources, and they were basically regarded as trustworthy. But today there’s all these outlets. You can get the news from anywhere. Everybody’s a reporter. But I think we’re all sort of learning that we need to be on our guard. Because we didn’t used to have to be on our guard when we heard news. We just believed it,” Gallentine said.
 
Surely, these mistakes can’t have a negative impact on society – can they?
 
We live in an age where some people doubt the lunar landings happened and there has been an increase in those who believe the Earth is flat. The media’s job is to spread truth and if that means they have to wait a little longer to post their stories and take the time to get their facts straight—then that is what they should do. 
 
However, in the rush to gain the 21st century’s equivalent of a scoop, many organizations are bypassing that responsibility and are creating a misinformed public apparently for the sake of a few extra views. Don’t think this is an issue? A recent survey has found that a third of young millennials surveyed weren’t certain the Earth was round.
 
Recently we marked the passing of noted astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who, perhaps, best expressed the danger represented by negligent reporting when he said: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is illusion of knowledge.”
 
CNN, Popular Mechanics, NASASpaceFlight and AmericaSpace, and others, have all contributed to that “illusion of knowledge.”  
 
In terms of the inaccurate reporting on the Twin Studies by some in the media, officials noted that the correct information was placed out there, but those journalists failed to follow up about what the report actually stated.
 
“The first report that I saw on TV interviewed a professor of medicine who was quick to say it was probably gene expression. It pays to stick to resources that understand what they see and not those that are not willing to research or don’t have reporters smart enough to understand basic science,” Brand noted.
 
Following up on stories and only using credible sources – is critical to accurate reporting.

When SpaceFlight Insider reached out to both SpaceX and the U.S. Air Force, their representatives were both annoyed and cautious, but they provided the correct information. In the social media age, it might be easier for ‘outlets’ to re-post what someone else is saying without bothering to do any of the leg work required. However, doing so generates the situation that the public has been placed in, and that’s where the real wrinkle begins.

The internet today is where the public gets its information from. It’s where we educate ourselves. By placing factually-devoid information out there, the public is being “taught” something false. The incidents mentioned within this editorial were selected because it would have been easy for the outlets mentioned to contact the source, conduct basic journalism and make sure every word they wrote was bulletproof. 

There are those who have suggested correspondents and journalists who cover the space industry are “too close” to the story, stating it might be better if less-informed journalists were to handle this responsibility in their stead. These recent events provide examples of why this is the wrong way to go. The proper course of action is for journalists who are versed in the subjects covered and are skilled at translating what is being described into common English.

With all this being said, each instance is different. If an outlet makes every effort to obtain the proper information and are unable to obtain it and are told something that is incorrect from a credible source, this is understandable. Making mistakes is a part of life, but these instances appear to have been preventable. A NASA official came out and refuted what had been reported, the U.S. Air Force and SpaceX stated that the airstrike reports were false and, finally, scientists have worked to correct the misinformation issued about The Twin Study.

Sadly, this editorial will be misinterpreted as an attack. In the echo chamber that is the internet, it is not. It is a plea to do the work as that work will be cited and shared again and again. In an ocean of data, it is totally understandable to make mistakes to a certain degree. However, as has been detailed, there were sources who could have been contacted. 

It’s difficult to provide constructive criticism these days, but as has been noted above, it is more important than ever to do so. SpaceFlight Insider has made mistakes in the past as well and we have also taken pains to correct them. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes – so long as you issue a proper retraction and corrective actions are taken to help prevent similar mistakes from happening again.

 

The views expressed in this editorial are solely those of the author and do not represent those of SpaceFlight Insider

 

 

 

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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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