Name and Shame

24 May 2013

NBC Nightly News should be ashamed of itself for the pathetic reporting of a close asteroid approach coming May 31st. As Brian Williams reported on national television:

It might also be nice to circle May 31 on the calendar just to be on the safe side. That’s because a huge asteroid called 1998 QE2 is going to pass by at the relatively safe distance of about 3.6 million miles. That’s about 15 times the distance between the Earth and Moon. And while scientists think it’s a safe distance – in other words, what could go wrong? It’s probably best to stock up on can goods nonetheless. This hurtling rock by the way, almost two miles long, they believe it is a remnant of a former comet.

Seriously? Stock up on canned goods? First, just to be clear, there is zero risk of a collision approach. We don’t think there is no risk from this asteroid. We know there is no risk. None at all. Second, if a 2-mile wide rock were going to hit the Earth it wouldn’t be canned goods time, it would be “prepare for an event that will decimate an area the size of Iowa” time. Mass evacuations, climate impacts, and millions dead or homeless.

I understand time is short on the evening news, and a 15-second blurb can’t convey too much information, but fear-mongering and misinformation in that limited time is downright unprofessional.

Here’s what Williams could have said in the same time with the same graphics.

Astronomers are marking their calendars for May 31. That’s when a two-mile wide asteroid known as 1998 QE2 will come within 3.6 million miles of Earth. There is no risk of the asteroid colliding with Earth, but the close approach will give astronomers a chance to study up close what they believe is the remnant of a former comet.

Honest, accurate and clear. Seriously, NBC Nightly News, if you need someone to write better copy for your science coverage I’m available.