American Newspapers and the Great Meteor Storm of 1833: A Case Study in Science Journalism

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Abstract

American newspaper coverage of the great meteor storm of 1833 provides an opportunity to observe that era's science journalism in action. The results are surprising. Newspapers in this period from the Revolution to the Civil War focused almost entirely on politics and were highly partisan, with little concern for local happenings and even less for science. Yet confronted with a completely unexpected celestial spectacle that had substantial scientific implications, most newspaper editors rose to the occasion by adopting uncharacteristic practices. They sought out observers and got interviews. They published letters from witnesses. They consulted scientific texts and printed explanations from scientists. Most editors tried to keep their articles factual, although their political stories had no such scruples. Almost all tried to assuage the fear that many witnesses felt as they watched a sight utterly unlike any they had seen before or could have imagined. Newspapers assured readers that what they saw was natural and that science would provide an explanation - even though the true cause and nature of meteors was not known at the time. The public also benefited from the news pooling practice of that period, prior to the creation of the Associated Press in 1849. Because newspapers reprinted one another's stories, the public quickly realized how widespread the meteor storm was - the entire eastern half of North America. American newspaper coverage of the great Leonid meteor storm of 1833 was so significant in extent and quality that it contributed to the founding of a new branch of astronomy, meteor science.

American newspaper coverage of the great Leonid Meteor Storm of 1833 provides an opportunity to observe that era's science journalism in action. The results are surprising. Newspapers in this period from the Revolution to the Civil War focused almost entirely on politics and were vehemently partisan and biased, with little concern for reporting local happenings and even less for science.1 Yet confronted with a completely unexpected celestial spectacle that had significant implications for science, most newspaper editors rose to the occasion by adopting uncharacteristic practices. They sought out observers and got interviews. They published letters from readers who witnessed the meteors. They consulted scientific texts, called for readers familiar with science to contribute, and printed the explanations of scientists from other cities. Most editors did their best to keep the articles factual (although their political stories had no such scruples). Almost all tried to assuage the fear that many witnesses felt as they watched an event utterly unlike any they had seen before or could have imagined. Newspaper editors assured readers that what they saw was natural and that science would provide an explanation - even though the true cause and nature of meteors was not known at the time.

The public also benefited from the well-established news pooling practice of that period, which was prior to the creation of the Associated Press in 1849. American editors reprinted stories, verbatim or condensed, from other newspapers, without explicit permission and sometimes without acknowledgement.2 In the case of the deluge of shooting stars, the result of newspapers cribbing stories from one another was that the American public quickly realized how widespread the meteor storm was - the entire eastern half of North America - and how similar people's reactions were. Because of the extensive coverage over weeks of time, and with the help of editors, readers could also begin to differentiate reliable observations from sloppy and even fraudulent ones.

American Newspapers from the Revolution to 1833

In 1783, at the official conclusion of the American Revolution, there were 35 newspapers in the United States. Three years later, in 1786, as Americans were preparing to draft a Constitution, the number had grown to 50. …