The way rumours have propagated about the hoax is a real worry. I think
on the whole we have been lucky in that the media have not gone
overboard. However, the whole issue raises questions about the
relationship between SETI and the media. I have two points:
1. Don't shoot the wrong man. David Whitehouse at the BBC is the wrong
man. He reported the story in the BBC's Online web pages - giving it a
sceptical treatment. What he said was, 'there's this thing going on,
it's probably a hoax or an error, but it needs verification, and it
raises questions about how a SETI hit might be presented to the media in
the future'. Precisely which bit of this has got everyone so riled up?
To me, that all sounds like the truth.
David spoke to Jodrell Bank - but beyond that, there is an almost
complete lack of SETI folks with authoritative science credibility in the
European time zone (Ken, this is no disrespect to you or any other SETI
League member - it's just that a journalist will automatically go for
official professional bodies). Presumably he had a choice between
running the story quickly (as outlined above, not a hype), or waiting for
SETI people in California to wake up before running it. By then it could
have been old news. Clearly he would have preferred cross-corroboration
and as many opinions as he could canvas, but the media is int he business
of speed as well as accuracy - and in any case, his report was already
saying it probably was fake. It was a perfect story for an on-line news
page, updatable every few hours as more information came in. Remember,
this was not broadcast on TV or radio. I think he did his job well. I
would probably have done it the same way.
Blaming the media for doing its job - and, worse, blaming particular
individuals - is potentially *extremel*y bad PR. Fortunately David
Whitehouse is immensely experienced and professional (I have watched him
reporting science for the Beeb for more years than I care to think), and
I suspect he won't let it influence him. But other people in the media
will now think twice about calling an institution which might complain
about them in public.
The media aren't about to disappear. We have to learn to work with them.
2. Who speaks for SETI, what times of day can they be contacted - and do
the journalists who need to know, actually know?
The SETI community has to take responsibility for their relationship with
the media, we can't just sit back and be annoyed if it doesn't go how
we'd like. Part of the trouble is that the SETI community has many
fragmented bodies, and no central head which speaks for them all from a
well-informed up-to-the-minute perspective. The problem is compounded by
the open and unstructured nature of all internet-based communication.
witness the hacking of e-mails, to-and-fro discussion on an open list
(which is where it was established that it was a hoax, so don't knock
it), the furore over web pages springing up and who's responsible for
what... The internet is a rumour mill as well as an information tool.
I think a clearer media strategy needs to be put inplace, not just within
the SETI LEague, but across the entire SETI community. Just think how
confusing it would have been if the hit was real - and remember that one
day it will be.
Richard and Valerie Burke-Ward
(+44) 171-736 7662 (Tel/Fax)