Mir spotted in skies over India,
March 13, 2001 8:08 AM   Subscribe

Mir spotted in skies over India, millions panic? While the fall of Mir has been getting plenty of press coverage, this is the first blatantly alarmist piece I've seen, and it's from CNN/Reuters. Does this kind of "reporting" border on criminal?
posted by ewagoner (26 comments total)
"Astronomers spotted Russia's Mir space station hurtling over the skies of India on Monday and said the aging craft is expected to be visible to the naked eye in New Delhi for the next three nights." This kind of reporting makes me angry. The paths of all orbiting satellites are well known, even (up until the last moment) Mir's. Regular readers of this or practically any weblog know how to predict when Mir, the International Space Station, and orbiting shuttles, and other major bodies will pass over their heads, and it's not a secret from the rest of the world, either. Mir orbits the earth several times a day (I don't remember how many times offhand -- twenty?), passing over much of the earth as it does so. Reporting this as news, much less making it a leading headline, is nothing more than an attempt to induce panic, and as much of a champion for freedom of speech as I am, it seems to me this is akin to the old "yelling fire in a crowded theater" bit.

posted by ewagoner at 8:11 AM on March 13, 2001

I didn't find anything wrong with this article. While it may not be 'news' in the sense that Mir has been around for quite sometime, I didn't find any real alarmist qualities about the article. It's just tips on how to spot Mir with the naked eye and binoculars. The thrust seems to be that it isn't typically visible to the naked eye, which for all I know is true. There are no calls to huddle indoors till it goes away, nor superfluous information meant to scare; all it is is dates, times, and an astronomer to help you find it. What's the problem?
posted by dcodea at 8:18 AM on March 13, 2001

I don't know - it doesn't seem alarming to me. If I lived in India I might set aside some time for a chance to check it out. You don't often get a chance to see a satellite first hand that is going down (at least, I hope not).

Now get me footage of the impact - that would be fun to watch.
posted by fuzzynavel at 8:18 AM on March 13, 2001

The problem is Mir is visible every night, and has been since the day it was launched. It takes an ordinary everyday occurrence and makes it sound like its something new and unique. Combined with the other news stories in print, television, and radio, it helps complete the picture in people's minds that "Mir is coming down and it's going to be devastating". Oh my, it's passing right over the capital of the second-most populous country in the world! Look, the Japanese are canceling state visits to be at home during the crisis!

Do you see? Nothing in the article is wrong, but the way it is presented is irresponsible.
posted by ewagoner at 8:29 AM on March 13, 2001

It's not alarming at all.
But it's also not news.
You can spot it in the evenings in the North American sky if you look to the northwest about 1-2 hours after sunset.
posted by darren at 8:30 AM on March 13, 2001

> Nothing in the article is wrong...

Unlike my comments. Please read "...makes it sound like it's something new..." for the obvious grammar mistake above.
posted by ewagoner at 8:31 AM on March 13, 2001

ewagoner - I know I'm being redundant with the other comments here, but I'm just wondering what you saw in that article. Maybe they changed it?

I don't see anything that could be construed as alarmist, panic inducing, or even cautionary.

"This kind of reporting makes me angry."

What kind of reporting? You know what pisses me off? People who post links without actually reading the article.
posted by y6y6y6 at 8:38 AM on March 13, 2001

Regular readers of this or practically any weblog know how to predict when Mir, the International Space Station, and orbiting shuttles, and other major bodies will pass over their heads, and it's not a secret from the rest of the world, either

just because we know how to look up, on the internet, satellite paths, doesn't mean everyone else does; or that people even think of that.i wouldn't call this alarmist reporting because it's not cnn's fault if people think the sky is falling.
posted by bliss322 at 8:53 AM on March 13, 2001

You can spot it in the evenings in the North American sky if you look to the northwest about 1-2 hours after sunset.

Actually...not always. CHECK HERE to be sure.
posted by Sal Amander at 9:18 AM on March 13, 2001

Indians like spotting things in the skies, well atleast people in Mumbai do. When Haley's Coment appeared back in the '80s, my family went to the Planetarium to see the comet with their powerful telescope. When Shoemaker-Levy was supposed to hit Jupiter, I again tried looking for it, but couldn't see it. When the Indian astornauts and the Russian astronauts were supposed to meet in space, by joining their spacecrafts, we went out and looked for it, I was the first one in my family who spotted it making its way across the sky.

Basically what I am trying to say is that newspapers in India always inform their readers when there is something noteworthy happening in the skies above. I don't remember Skylab but I recall that it caused some panic as it was supposed to hit India, but didn't. But I doubt that this article was trying to do the same.

This article is more about informing people when to go out and look for Mir, we normally can't see Mir because our cities have too much light pollution. Its noteworthy when you can see things like this from the cities.
posted by riffola at 10:25 AM on March 13, 2001

Yup I agree - nothing alarming here at all, nothing even vaguely threatening in the article. But as already said, hardly news either. Saying this is bordering on criminal and is purely fearmongering is like saying the it would be shrouded in pollution on the horizon implies it's written by environmentalists who want us to think of nothing but India's air quality. But I'm sure someone, somewhere will say that.
posted by DiplomaticImmunity at 10:25 AM on March 13, 2001

Most Indian cities have a smog problem, which is most noticbly seen early in the morning, I believe the pollution referred in the article is a mixutre of both smog and light pollution.
posted by riffola at 10:29 AM on March 13, 2001

A feature story in a topical subsection does not exactly qualify as panic-mongering in my view. It's not as if CNN treated this like a breaking news event.

Heck, here in Boston the local TV stations consider house fires, snowstorms and kittens stuck in trees as "breaking news" worthy of interrupting regular programming. That's far more egregiously bad news judgment than dishing up a cool factoid, IMHO.
posted by briank at 10:32 AM on March 13, 2001

Man, Eric, you really jumped to conclusions on this one. The article is 100% about viewing Mir -- in fact, it's a little excited about it. Now, it's a fact that Mir's orbit has decayed (it's now only about 2/3 the altitude of the International Space Station), and consequently it's visually larger. When it catches the sun during sighting opportunities, it's going to be the brightest thing in the sky.

Personally, as much as I'm a booster of the space program, there is a real risk in the de-orbit and I'm glad so much attention is being paid to it. Russia has a de-orbit plan, but they've only got one shot to get it right. Both RSA and NASA have imperfect records here, and this is the largest space structure in history (ISS has exceeded its internal volume, but only weighs around half as much so far). Still, it's better than Skylab, which in the end had little more than attitude control as a means of flight control through drag. Mir at least has a rocket engine to aim it where they want it. So hopes are high that the flight plan will work. The segment of the South Pacific where it's supposed to hit is VERY empty (check a map: all the island nations are actually north of New Zealand). That's about as good as you can get.

But if I lived anywhere in the approximate area, I'd be a little bit concerned. This is rocket science, meaning it's damned difficult to get right.
posted by dhartung at 10:49 AM on March 13, 2001

Now, by contrast, this article actually points out some real danger and manages to do it without beating the drum for panic in the streets.
posted by briank at 11:01 AM on March 13, 2001

When I first linked this non-story, it was featured at the top of CNN's front page. It's since been moved further down to the Space section, though for the moment still on the front page.

Perhaps you all have been more desentitized than I to sensationalist news stories, but I maintain that this is irresponsible journalism. As I said above, there's nothing technically untrue about what they are reporting, but it's being presented in a manner clearly designed to increase worry in people who otherwise wouldn't have concerned themselves. Some examples:

"Astronomers spotted Mir hurtling over" Right from the first words, the article takes what is a non-item and heightens the tension. I'm sure astronomers did watch, but the image the author is going for is one of astronomers nervously looking for a burning satellite as it passes overhead on its way down.

Interspersed with quotes from the assistant secretary of the local amature astronomy club are details about the upcoming slpash-down, which is not at all connected with Mir passing above.

The story gave an exact time Mir would appear over the horizon, but did not say where to look. There is not enough information given to actually view the station. If that was the intent of the article, there would have been more details.

My point is that the presentation of an every day occurance as a feature story, with overly dramatic language and no real information, does nothing to report the news and serves only to heighten speculation of an upcoming disaster (thus increasing readership/viewers next week). This, I'd expect from CNN or local TV stations or the newspapers, but Reuters? In their own words, "Reuters premier position as a global news, information and technology group is based on a reputation for speed, accuracy, integrity, and impartiality..." Not by hyping up the mundane and sticking it on the wire.
posted by ewagoner at 11:04 AM on March 13, 2001

"Astronomers spotted Mir hurtling over"

Pulling half a sentence out of the article and then getting "angry" about how the entire piece is "irresponsible journalism"? Please. You're not "desentitized", you're seriously over sensitive. IMHO.

"with overly dramatic language"

Okay Mr Smartypants. Just how would you word it? And must news services always strive to use boring, staid language?

I continue to fail to see your point as anything but overblown attention seeking.
posted by y6y6y6 at 11:21 AM on March 13, 2001

Sorry, I saw nothing wrong with it.
posted by Nathan at 11:40 AM on March 13, 2001

I only post this because y6y6y6 asked me. I'll post it without copyright, in case he or anyone else wants to forward it on. It's how Reuters could have reported this story, or how CNN could have presented it.

Last chance to see Mir draws near

Astronomers the world over are instructing people how to watch Russia's Mir space station streak across the skies. "It will look like a big star. It will be very fast moving, covering the whole sky in a minute or so," Nilesh Vayada, assistant secretary of the Confederation of Indian Amateur Astronomers told Reuters on Tuesday.

The 15-year-old craft, once the pride of the Soviet space program, is expected to splash down about 3,000 km (1,850 miles) east of New Zealand in open ocean sometime around March 20.

The best time to see Mir is just after dusk, as the craft needs to catch light from the setting sun and reflect it to the Earth below. Later at night, the craft is totally in Earth's shadow. Typically it remains visible for one to five minutes before entering the shadow.

The best viewing is with naked eye, he said. "Don't try hunting it with a telescope. If you really want, use a bino (binocular) with wide field of view, but first locate Mir with the naked eye."

Mir's orbit takes it over most of the world during the course of a day, it it won't be observable from everywhere every day. Most places can see it on average once every ten days, and with only a week before splash-down, you'll need to plan ahead.

You can get complete information on Mir's flight path at NASA's official Mir website, and detailed viewing instructions can be found through organizations such as Heavens Above.
posted by ewagoner at 11:54 AM on March 13, 2001

Did you write this article or something, y6y6y6? :)
posted by daveadams at 1:25 PM on March 13, 2001

No. I did get a little excited there didn't I? Clearly I've gone totally manic. But the original question was "Does this kind of "reporting" border on criminal?" Now you tell me who's over reacting.
posted by y6y6y6 at 2:36 PM on March 13, 2001

Ah. Eric, the detail that it was "featured at the top of CNN's front page" was omitted from your earlier posts.

I still think you're reading things into the piece that just aren't there on sober re-examination. The fact that it is badly written, and probably NOT with the intent of such prominent position, does not make it alarmist. It says practically nothing about the dangers, in fact, the only reference is to a "splashdown", not a "landing". It reads like a hastily-scrawled human interest piece, really.

Hyping up the mundane and sticking it on the wire? Uh, have you READ the wire lately?

I'll wait for an actual example of alarmism before I post breathlessly to Metafilter, myself ... [dig]
posted by dhartung at 3:42 PM on March 13, 2001

i'm with ewagoner on this one. perhaps 'alarmist' was a poor choice of words on his part, but i hear him loud and clear. most of what passes for news anymore is bullshit.
posted by quonsar at 6:09 PM on March 13, 2001

Dinging a news organization for questionable news judgment is one thing, accusing them of being alarmist and "bordering on criminal" is another.
posted by briank at 7:09 PM on March 13, 2001

Especially when genuine alarmism and criminal negligence are more readily found.
posted by dhartung at 9:36 AM on March 14, 2001

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