NewsScience & Astronomy
6. March 2013

About four and a half years ago, I first wrote an article in German about the disappointing articles written by the science department of Spiegel Online, one of Germany’s largest online magazines. The web branch of the venerable Der Spiegel has had a particularly troubled history of science reporting with a noticeable anti-NASA stance. Back in 2008, when the Phoenix Mars Lander had arrived on the red planet, the reporting was so negative that nearly everything the mission accomplished was put in a bad light and small problems were made into sensational catastrophes. Unfortunately in the last years, this trend has not only continued, but also been made worse with lazy and careless reporting.

Recently, the science desk of Spiegel Online seems to have found a new target in Space X, the private company of Elon Musk, who is providing “cargo logistics” to the International Space Station for NASA with their Falcon rockets and Dragon transporters. Even before the first flight in 2012, the articles about Space X were dismissive and full of underlying doubt that the company did not have the technical expertise to fulfill the NASA contract. When everything is okay, the articles on Spiegel Online are often indifferent and not more than regurgitated wire reports from DPA or Reuters. But when the slightest thing is amiss, the editors jump on it and often make a mountain out of a molehill.

Last weekend, when the third launch of a Dragon space capsule to the ISS experienced some trouble with the maneuvering thrusters after the ascent, the science desk of Spiegel Online pulled one of their great stunts: the first article called Space freighter Dragon has problems on its way to the space station was posted on March 1st at 21:44 CET, at a time when Space X had already half-solved the problem – the solar sails were deployed and moments later all of the thrusters were working. But because it was Friday night, the article was neither corrected nor superseded by another one – this took Spiegel Online until Monday morning, when a new article reporting about the successful docking finally appeared. And even that needed to be corrected, because the initial version actually said that the Dragon capsule is supposedly at the moment the only way to get freight to the ISS!

Another recent example is their reporting about the computer problems of the Curiosity Rover, which everybody knew about since NASA’s press release on Thursday. The problem is potentially serious, but this is why the rover has two computers. However, switching over to the b-side is a complicated procedure, which had to be done carefully. Spiegel Online finally found out about this on late Monday afternoon, March 4th – about four days after the press release. The article was sensationally titled Computer error: Mars rover out of order for days as if this short pause after over 200 Mars days of near-continuous work would be a huge problem – but the rover is not going anywhere and even the recently scooped up sample from the first drill hole is not going to become mouldy all of a sudden. The article would have been acceptable if there had not been another press release from NASA on Sunday saying that Curiosity is out of safe mode and will resume science work this week. Most other German news sites had already reacted to this on Tuesday at the latest, but Spiegel Online is once again asleep at the wheel.

[Update from March 7: Curiosity has gone to sleep again to weather out a sunstorm, but once again Spiegel Online treats it as a huge failure for NASA (“Sunstorm – Curiosity is taking a break again“). This time they actually got their information from Curiosity’s Twitter account, which is kind of an improvement in terms of actuality… but the tone of the article most definitively isn’t.]

All this would not be worth complaining about if this wasn’t Spiegel Online, a website which claims to be one of the most up-to-date and modern online news magazines in Germany and constantly complains about the lack of quality journalism on the web. Interestingly, the initials in the by-lines of these articles don’t seem to belong to the members of their science desk and they are not even listed on the impressum page. The question is, who has been writing these substandard articles and is responsible for the constant delays in reporting?

The even bigger question is, why does nobody care at Spiegel Online? Science and astronomy might not be the most important news around, but if you bother to write about it at all, you should at least get it right. Reading press releases from the official sources and amending articles in reasonable time should simply not be a problem for a website like Spiegel Online.

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