During the last week of March, if you subscribed to The Wall Street Journal and watched the "CBS Evening News," you would have read on the front page, and seen as the lead-off news story, the astonishing results of a fusion experiment in Utah that could hold the potential to revolutionize the way we use energy.
On the other hand, if you watched NBC News and read The New York Times, you could have easily missed the story entirely.For those who believe the press marches in lockstep, covering stories as if following guidelines handed down from some central authority, the uneven coverage of the fusion story suggests how often news judgment - and luck - affect what gets in the paper or on the air. The response to the fusion story also illustrates the challenges reporters face as they scramble to cover major scientific stories.
"The media were faced with a difficult problem on this one," said Fred Jerome, executive vice president of the Scientists' Institute for Public Information and a science media analyst. "What do you do when someone calls a press conference and says they've solved the whole world's problems?"
Three weeks after the initial fusion announcement, most science reporters and editors interviewed, along with scientists and researchers, agree that media coverage has on the whole been balanced and responsible, with early stories infused with the right degree of skepticism.
But along the way, "fusion confusion" produced some bumps and close news calls. It also yielded the somewhat curious spectacle of scientists at Texas A&M University and the Georgia Institute of Technology scanning newspaper articles to duplicate an experiment in what could be one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century.
The chase began March 22, when the senior public-relations official at the University of Utah called science reporters at the country's top newspapers and television networks to tell them there would be a news conference the next day to announce a breakthrough in so-called cold fusion, the creation of fusion at room temperature instead of at high heat.
Such news conferences are not unusual. Pressured by competition for research grants, eager to exploit commercial applications, and interested in making a splash nationally, more and more scientists and universities now announce scientific discoveries at news conferences instead of waiting for the lengthy process of peer review and publication in scientific journals.
Over the years, reporters have learned to be skeptical of such discovery-by-press-conference, especially after many heralded "breakthroughs" fizzled. In the early 1980s, a series of public announcements of gene cloning turned out to be far less dramatic once the scientific articles were published.
After receiving a phone call from the U. of U., Jerry Bishop, the well-respected science reporter at The Wall Street Journal, pondered the news over lunch. That afternoon, he rummaged through his files and came across notes from a conference on cold fusion he had attended several years back. What he read in his notes, and the scientists he called, convinced him the story was potentially momentous. Bishop wrote an advance story for the next day's paper announcing news of the Utah findings.
The following day, the Journal reported the news conference itself on the front page in a lengthy news-feature story that discussed the potential implications of the findings. Such page-one placement for a breaking news story is extremely unusual for the Journal, which usually runs features on its front page, breaking the rule only for major presidential announcements, foreign crises and business crises such as the 1987 stock market crash.
"Sometimes the nature of the news is such that you can't ignore it," said Bishop. The fusion reaction, he said, "is something everyone's been trying to do for 35 years."
At the Los Angeles Times and at CBS, editors made similar judgments. The paper put the story on page one; Dan Rather led the CBS evening news with the Utah news conference.
"Some of our people here were familiar with the University of Utah researchers," said Joel Greenberg, science editor of the Los Angeles Times. "They had a good reputation as chemists."
Over at NBC, however, science correspondent Robert Bazell was calling his sources and finding nothing but skepticism. He didn't report the fusion experiment for a week.
"Every red flag that goes up indicating that this may not be accurate scientific information was up," said Bazell. "The work hadn't been published. It hadn't been seen by others. Other experts were skeptical. I thought, if you give it coverage, you give it credence."
Phillip Boffey, science editor of The New York Times, felt the same way. The Times put the Utah story inside the paper on one of its national news pages. The fusion work did not make page one until last Tuesday, after scientists at Texas A&M and Georgia Tech said they had duplicated some of the findings.
"If you put something on page one, you're implying a belief in the likelihood of what's being claimed being true," Boffey said. "My feeling is the burden is on those who claim to have found something revolutionary. They have to prove their case." The Boston Globe made essentially the same decision, declining to put the story on page one until other scientists indicated they believed the experiment could be duplicated.
Part of this skepticism, editors acknowledge, stemmed from a touch of regional bias and the sudden nature of the announcement. "Here you had a hastily called press conference in the far reaches of the country," said Boffey. The University of Utah is not known as a major research center, like MIT, Caltech or Princeton.
Also, many reporters, when they learned of the Utah claims, turned first to physicists who specialize in fusion. Most of those physicists were extremely skeptical. But the Utah experiment had been conducted by chemists, and well-respected chemists, the Los Angeles Times found, were more enthusiastic.
While newspapers scrambled to cover the story, scientists scrambled for information. The Utah researchers had not circulated their findings. So when a scientist at Texas A&M was interviewed by a Los Angeles Times reporter, he asked for a copy of the news story that described the experiment. The Texas scientists used that story to set up the experiment that duplicated part of the Utah findings. Scientists at Georgia Tech also based their experiment on news accounts.
With the first round of news coverage of the fusion experiment now over, science editors and others say they are still troubled by the growing trend of press-conference announcements by scientists. Too often, they say, these announcements pit the rush to news judgment against the usual painstaking pace of scientific inquiry
"It makes life difficult for science editors," Boffey said. "What do you do if, next time, two well-respected scientists call a press coneference to announce that a UFO has landed and taken off? Where do you play that?"