Mars - an old-fashioned scoop

In January 2009, I delivered a world exclusive story that made the front page of top-selling UK newspaper The Sun. I had discovered that NASA were set to announce compelling evidence that there was life on Mars, following the detection of concentrations of methane.

When it appeared, there was uproar. A US-based science journal rang The Sun's newsdesk at 3am demanding the story be removed from the paper's website.

They claimed the news was embargoed and were no doubt horrified to learn that it was in the process of being printed on the front of three million newspapers.

But, as the journal itself soon realised and accepted, no embargo was breached because I had no access to, nor indeed knowledge of, any privileged information.

My story was based entirely on good, old-fashioned, investigative journalism.

It began when, like journalists around the world, I received an email from NASA announcing a special press briefing. This simply advised that it was "to discuss analysis of the Martian atmosphere that raises the possibility of life or geologic activity."

It did, however, name the experts who would be appearing on NASA's panel at the briefing. There was nothing in the release to warn that its contents were secret.

I spoke to an astronomer colleague who thought that the alternative scenarios offered by NASA in the release suggested they might be talking about finding methane. I did some Googling and found that Europe's Mars Express probe had already detected methane on Mars in 2004 when those two possible sources were also mooted.

Then I Googled some more to find out about the research interests of the panel. I found that two members in particular had been conducting intensive searches for methane on Mars using powerful telescopes on Earth.

Next I interviewed Beagle 2 space scientist Professor Colin Pillinger for his own expert views of what the discovery of methane would mean. Fortunately for me, he was in no doubt that, as far as Mars was concerned, it would be a clear indicator of life rather than any volcanic activity.

The final part of the jigsaw was the nature of the briefing itself. For the press conference to be so high-profile, I figured that NASA must seriously believe that they might have detected life on Mars.

I admit to some real fears when I learned that The Sun was going to splash on the story. Had I put two and two together and made five? I could hardly sleep as the paper was printing in case I had made a colossal blunder.

Early next day, I felt slightly reassured to learn of the science journal's complaint - tellingly, they had not said the story was incorrect. Similarly, NASA refused to comment but did not deny it either. Then, during the afternoon, an advance story from the Press Association confirmed it to be true.

I later learned that advance details of the NASA findings had been given, under embargo, to a select number of journalists, publications and broadcasters. Happily, I was not one and so was able to do the detective work that gave me the story.

Contact details: Paul Sutherland, SpaceStories, 29b The Beach, Walmer, Kent, CT14 7HJ, United Kingdom.
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