Last Friday, U.S. intelligence agencies released a report that many were eagerly awaiting: a preliminary assessment on unidentified aerial phenomena. In layman’s terms, UFOs. The unclassified report said these phenomena clearly pose a flight safety issue but that there aren’t enough high-quality reports on them to draw any firm conclusions.
Sightings of UFOs have been reported throughout history in different parts of the world. In the U.S., these unidentified flying objects have been repeatedly investigated over the decades and perhaps forever embedded in our culture. And journalists have been there to report on them.
How can and should the press cover this subject responsibly? How do they balance the offbeat nature of this subject — with its decades of conspiracies and skeptics — with not just their credibility, but that of their publications’? And what role has the media played in shaping how the public perceives these sightings?
In 2017, The New York Times published a bombshell of a story about a shadowy Pentagon program that investigated reports of UFOs. For years, the story said, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program was run by a military intelligence official named Luis Elizondo. The Defense Department had never before acknowledged the existence of the program and officials there insisted the effort ended in 2012.
The story was reported by Ralph Blumenthal, an author and staff reporter for The New York Times from 1964 to 2009, the Times’ Pentagon correspondent Helene Cooper and investigative journalist Leslie Kean, who was tipped off about the program. The trio of journalists obtained records, spoke to program participants and Pentagon officials, an astrophysicist, a former NASA space shuttle engineer who often debunks UFO sightings.
Blumenthal, now a contributor for the Times (disclosure: I also occasionally report for the Times) and a distinguished lecturer at Baruch College, said he wasn’t concerned about his credibility while reporting on this story.
“My whole career at The Times involved taking on a whole bunch of different stories, complicated stories, controversial stories. I’ve dealt with Nazi war criminals and the Mafia, corrupt politicians, and strange feature stories. As a correspondent in Texas, I had plenty of strange Texas stories,” Blumenthal said. “I was never worried as long as I had the facts. We had the documentation, we had the on-the-record interviews. I knew that there was a ridiculed factor attached to UFOs, and The Times had written about UFOs in the past not always respectfully. I knew that, but it didn’t worry me at all. I didn’t think that I was investing my reputation or risking my reputation as long as we had the facts. And the facts were that the government was investigating this area.”
Blumenthal recalled the response to the story as titanic. Kean described it as enormous. They were flooded with emails and calls. The Times’s web version of the story also included two videos from the U.S. Navy, of radio encounters of unknown objects.
“It was absolutely a deluge,” Blumenthal said. “There was an appetite for this story, especially by a mainstream news organization like The Times, and the videos made it even more compelling because we showed the video evidence and we had the audio of pilots and sailors exclaiming over these images.”
Kean, who approached Blumenthal after sources invited her to Washington, D.C., to see the videos in person, said she has experienced a shift in journalism’s approach to stories about UFOs. Back in 1999, the independent journalist received a report on UFOs from a colleague in France. Intrigued, Kean did some background research into what the American relationship might be to this topic and pitched the story idea to an editor at The Boston Globe and other editors she’d worked for previously.
“Everyone was just really like, ‘We can’t touch this topic.’ It was so taboo. Even when I made the pitch, I tried to do it without using the word UFO,” Kean said. “Even though I was talking about generals, admirals, police, engineers and scientists, I tried to say ‘They made a report about phenomena in the sky that can’t be explained.’”
She said the Globe editor was willing to take a chance on the story, but it was still very touch-and-go.
“She wanted to put some sort of jokey things in, which I did not want. We had to go back and forth because that was the climate then — it was like this was considered a joke. It was not taken seriously,” Kean said. “The media didn’t usually cover it. If they did, they would play the ‘X-Files’ theme music in the background on TV, and wink and nod and giggle. I learned through that about this taboo.”
Because of the level of stigma around the subject when she initially reported on it in 2000, Kean said she was worried about losing her credibility as a journalist. At the time, she had a good job as a radio producer and on-air host at KPFA in Berkeley, California. She didn’t tell her colleagues she was working on a UFO story because she knew they didn’t take it seriously.
“It was like I was doing this thing I wasn’t supposed to be doing,” Kean recalled. “Behind the scenes, this shadowy, kind of crazy thing to do.”
Now, she said, the media can’t get enough of this topic.
“Everyone wants to report on UFOs.”
With UFO reporting comes strong reactions from skeptics and critics. Sarah Scoles, a freelance science writer and author of “They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers,” said a certain narrative has taken hold about what government interest in UFOs means. Many journalists, she said, repeat without digging in. She has raised questions about the 2017 New York Times story. Scoles said the Pentagon said the program profiled in that piece was not a UFO research program, but mainly an advanced aerospace weapons research program.
Both Scoles and Keith Kloor — a freelance journalist and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University — have raised doubts about Luis Elizondo, the military intelligence official who said he ran the program. Elizondo was a source in the Times’ story.
“Neither side has really provided enough evidence for us to have faith in their version of the story,” Scoles said of both narratives from the Pentagon and Elizondo. “But what we hear in the press on average is this was a UFO research program and this was the man who led it and he’s on a crusade to get people within government and in the public to care about it more.”
Kloor, who regularly writes longform feature stories for multiple outlets, has also donned a media critic hat for years. He has examined how the media covers everything from genetically modified organisms to climate change. He has also written about America’s obsession with UFOs and has argued that UFOs will never go away because of what he describes as bad journalism.
A few years ago, Kloor said he became curious as to why former Pentagon officials (some of whom have appeared as sources in his own work) suddenly began pushing the UFO story. In his first story for Newsweek, Kloor wrote about Elizondo, who had just appeared at a UFO convention in New Jersey.
“I said to myself, ‘Why is this guy doing that? Why is he showing up at this convention of kooks if he’s a serious national security professional?’” Kloor recalled. “It didn’t make any sense to me, so I have been tracking this story since then.”
Kloor said Elizondo has presented no evidence that he ever led the once-secret program. He said the program did exist, but consisted of some scientists contracting out research to other academics.
But if he was in the position to report on it, Kloor said he would have done so more skeptically and critically.
“I would have tried to find out as much about it as I could,” he said. “I would have asked for more documentation about Elizondo.”
Generally speaking, Scoles said that, for a long time, coverage of UFOs was “wink wink, nudge nudge.” She noted that journalists have moved beyond that in this latest round of coverage. But Scoles said she doesn’t see many stories bringing up the contradictions that exist.
“When there’s a high-profile story, or something like the ‘60 Minutes’ piece, everybody jumps on the bandwagon because that’s how flashy headlines and internet clicks work. When there’s something that everybody is talking about and that is trending, people get assigned to write stories on it,” Scoles said. “With deadlines and because these are just meant to be quick hits while this thing is trending, on average, people don’t really dig in into those contradictions and questions.”
In May, “60 Minutes” aired a story about UFOs that featured an interview with Elizondo. A communications representative for CBS News and “60 Minutes” did not respond to requests for interviews with the team involved in producing that segment.
Scoles said she’d like to see more people asking questions like, why is this happening now? Why are these former government officials pushing so hard for this information to become public? She wondered, why not five years ago?
Kloor said the media, overall, has been instrumental in shaping the public’s views of UFOs. He cited journalism scholars who have depicted UFO reporting as speculative and event-driven.
“They argue, and I agree with them, is that the UFO phenomenon such as this has been driven by the onset of the Cold War,” he said. “Periodically, you see a UFO frenzy in the media and, very much like what you see in the last months and couple years, there’s no difference. In fact, if you were to look at the stories that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, you could say they’re the same as the ones that are appearing today.”
In mid-May, NBC News reporter Denise Chow and NBC News correspondent Gadi Schwartz worked on a story titled “UFOs are about to make their way to the U.S. Senate. Here’s what to know.” Chow described the story as a catch-all explainer.
“There’s been interest and fascination in UFO and alien lore for so long, that it’s part of American culture — but we wanted to understand what we knew, first of all, and also whether there were scientific explanations behind this,” Chow said. “And then also what we don’t know … a big thing about this story is it could be an explanation like, ‘This is just very advanced technology.’”
Chow said she is more skeptical about reporting on UFOs because of experiences she had previously as a staff writer for Space.com, a website dedicated to space exploration, innovation and astronomy news.
“At Space.com, we would just get inundated with emails and people saying that they had seen something, and wondering what that weird light in the night sky was,” she said. “So many times there’s a very simple explanation for it, and it’s not aliens and it’s not UFOs.”
Chow said many people were interested in their story and noted the increased attention in other stories on the subject. She joked with friends that she’s not sure how much of it was a reaction to what happened in the past year with COVID-19, of readers wanting to focus on something different.
From a reader’s standpoint, Chow said she can see why there’s so much interest around this. The fact that this has been presented to Congress gives it a little bit of credibility, she said.
“I think the idea of UFOs and what the Navy calls UAVs, I think that’s always been really fascinating to people because it really lets your imagination go wild,” Chow said. “The videos that are out there — the ones that are circulating from the Navy — you don’t really see much. It’s so grainy. You don’t even know what you’re looking at, but it’s just enough to pique your interest and let your mind go wild.”
So what do these journalists who have covered UFOs think the objects are?
Kean said she doesn’t know.
“It’s been acknowledged now that they’re not ours, which is a big step forward. Officials have acknowledged that they’re not ours, and that’s never happened before,” she said. “Could they be technologies from Russia or China? That’s way ahead of us … it seems so unlikely to be the case. Once we get a statement from the official world acknowledging that it’s not Russia or China, then we have something that we might call is not made by man on earth. Then we got to open the door to the question of what are they? Which is of course what everybody wants to know.”
Scoles said she doesn’t have a good answer.
“I withhold judgment on what they are. I’m a UFO agnostic,” she said. “UFOs are certainly a lot of things. They’re not just one thing. Historically, in large batches of UFO reports, most of them are explainable by conventional things — whether that’s aircraft or planets that look weird, or meteors. It would make sense to me if the ones that remain unidentified are also a variety of objects. I don’t know what they are though. I don’t hold an alien belief … I also don’t dismiss it out of hand.”
Chow said it’s hard to say.
“I don’t really know that I feel strongly one way or the other. I think that my mind goes to the simplest explanation, which would be that this is not some sort of alien technology,” she said. “But at the same time, I’m willing to be proven wrong with the right evidence. I don’t know that I really have a strong opinion one way or the other.”
Blumenthal said he doesn’t want to speculate, but has ruled out a lot of hypotheses in his mind.
“I’m pretty sure what they are not. They’re not mental illness. They’re not hallucinations. They are not fabrications or hoaxes,” he said. “They’re not publicity-seeking efforts … so when you eliminate that people are not crazy, they’re not disturbed, that they’re not doing it for attention, that it affects people from all walks of life … it’s a universal phenomenon in terms of these sightings. … Where they come from, that’s speculation.”
Kloor said he doesn’t know.
“It’s really hard to tell from these videos. They could be birds. They could be drones. They could be balloons. I don’t know,” he said. “It could be some sort of advanced aerial technology that the U.S. has developed, or Russia. I’m pretty confident it’s not flying saucers, though.”