British public affairs media and the coverage of ‘Life on Mars?’

Holliman, Richard (1998). British public affairs media and the coverage of ‘Life on Mars?’. In: Scanlon, Eileen; Whitelegg, Liz and Yates, Simeon eds. Communicating Science: Contexts and Channels, Volume Reader 2. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 270–286.



This chapter presents the results of empirical research that analysed UK news media coverage of ‘Life on Mars?’. More specifically, this chapter describes how quantitative and qualitative methods were used to examine the production, content and reception of newspaper and television news coverage of research conducted on the Martian meteorite ALH84001. The chapter documents the results of a systematic analysis of two years of media content (1996 and 1997), a period that includes a leaked announcement of a high-profile research paper in the journal Science. Much of the television news and newspaper reporting of this issue was published between 6 and 9 August 1996, and simplified the lines of evidence and counter-evidence, emphasising the most contested element (micro-fossils). The audience reception analysis reflected this finding, demonstrating the influence of the dominant framing of a scientific issue when reported in news media. Further reporting of the scientific debate surrounding ALH84001 continued in longer-form news programmes (BBC Newsnight and Channel 4 News), via scientific documentaries (e.g. BBC Horizon) and specialist magazine programmes (e.g. BBC Sky at Night). These later reports offered more nuanced and comprehensive accounts of the research into the potential for ‘life on Mars?’, demonstrating the value of specialist science journalists and scientific experts working as presenters on television.

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