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Project Greenglow: How Horizon Lost the Message in the Medium

When news media tailor their science reporting to their expected audiences, the message of science can get lost in the requirements of the medium. An episode of the BBC flagship science series Horizon offers an unfortunate example.

Several years ago, I acquired a recording of Sibelius’s fifth symphony. This is one of his best-known works, but the version I received was the original 1915 one rather than the revised 1919 version, which until fairly recently was the only recording ever heard. What I expected were minor changes in orchestration, with perhaps a few passages removed or extended here and there. What I got was the kind of shock you might feel if you met someone in the street you had known all your life and found that he was twenty centimeters taller than he was three weeks last Tuesday and that his hair had turned blue. When I cast a skeptical eye over newspaper, magazine, and television coverage of scientific topics, I often get much the same feeling.1

The medium is the message, a phrase coined in the 1960s by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, became what was perhaps the most successful, and least understood, meme of the age. Arguments still rage about what McLuhan really meant, but it seems to me that he may at least have gotten it right about science reporting: the media decide what the message of science is, not the scientists. The requirement that TV science presentations keep the viewer entertained and tuned in means that they can easily wind up as a PR pitch for some supposed future technological miracle, while reality and the true nature of the science involved are largely ignored or obscured.

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