The meteorite that hit the Comette house

In my new job, I often find myself wondering about what is and what isn’t newsworthy. Is the story I have to tell worthy of a press release? What is it about it that can make it sell?

There are criteria that help press officers decide which science stories have potential to hit the headlines, and which are likely to be read only by the selected few that check an organisation’s website. “Timing” is often number one on the list: the story is news if the event it describes has just happened. If the issue has direct influence on people’s lives (“significance”, think material damage and loss of human lives), has profound consequences (“implications”), such as the revision of a widely accepted scientific theory, or describes a “major discovery”, it may also make it into mainstream newspapers. As a rule, you know a story is newsworthy if one or more of these criteria is satisfied.

But as with every rule, there are exceptions. Some stories make it to the newspapers simply because they allow journalists and editors to come up with titles like this one: “Comette family home damaged by egg-sized meteorite.” Go ahead, read the Guardian article, you know you are curious. A meteorite fell on the Comette home, what are the odds? There it is: the certain je ne sais quoi that makes this a newsworthy story.

If you do read the article, you’ll understand that is pretty much all there is to it. The rock hit the family home “some time over the summer”, or one to two months ago; you can cross “timing” off the list. The meteorite broke one roof tile, so not much material damage to account for; there goes “significance”. I also don’t think an egg-sized rock falling in Paris has any profound “implications”, and it definitely doesn’t qualify as a “major discovery”.

OK, you could argue, as the journalist who wrote the piece does, that meteorite falls in France are not that common (there is a certain “mystery” to the story). The article quotes a mineral expert saying that there have only been 50 or so in the past four centuries, and none in Paris. But this information is buried somewhere in the middle of the article: the journalist knows that that’s not what makes the editor select the piece for today’s newspaper.

So, really, this story is newsworthy simply because a tiny meteorite happened to fall on the house of a family named Comette. But that’s enough to sell it.

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