UFOs as a Stress Test of Modern Journalism

UFOs as a Stress Test of Modern Journalism

There are two basic tasks in journalism – gathering news and making sense of news. When an investigative journalist finds documents or carefully interviews a witness they are "gathering news" by developing facts and evidence. When a columnist or opinion writer offers framing and analysis on a subject, they are engaged in sensemaking. The two often go together, especially in coverage of complex topics. It is not quite so simple, but one could think of newsgathering as providing new data and sensemaking as providing new perspectives.

Recently there has been an uptick in media interest in UFOs. That recent coverage exposes some enduring problems in both functions of journalism. Namely, it reflects a gradual weakening of investigative journalism in favor of sensemaking journalism, and a limited conception of newsgathering that focuses too much on social evidence (what people say) at the expense of other forms of evidence (what people do, and what data records).

For example, Ezra Klein recently published an opinion piece titled "Even if You Think Discussing Aliens Is Ridiculous, Just Hear Me Out" that seeks to explore recent developments regarding UFOs. As opinion, it is firmly in the domain of sensemaking journalism – Klein's objective is not to introduce new facts, but rather to suggest new perspectives and organization of existing information.

Even opinion pieces can and should be measured in terms of standards of evidence. Although framing is often subjective, it must be premised on a set of facts in order to avoid being entirely arbitrary. In Klein's case, the evidence he relies on is largely social in nature. The reader is walked through a sequence of views and statements by high profile figures, including former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and former CIA director John Brennan.

The argument does not linger on any particular objective evidence like video or images – all of which remain highly contested. Instead, the implication is that serious people in a position to know have indicated that there might be something to the topic. Sensibly, Klein doesn't claim that this constitutes proof of extraterrestrial visitation – but it is license to "let the mind roam over the implications," as he puts it.

What follows is an intellectual amble through what various observers think might happen if it turns out aliens are visiting. Religious studies professor Dr. Diana Pasulka warns of a "narrative grab" amidst a collapse in trust in institutions. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the chief executive of New America and a former director of policy planning at the State Department, anticipates complex international reactions with competitors like Russia and China refusing to believe American claims about extraterrestrial life. The list goes on.

Vaulting over objective evidence to play with implications is a crucial elision. It reduces the complex question of data about individual incidents and governmental response to a more engaging question: what if there are aliens? What if those aliens are visiting the earth?

Klein isn't bashful about "what if" being more fun than "what is." Klein remarks that he relishes his not knowing, telling us: "I enjoy the spaciousness of mystery."

When the priority is fun and mystery, biases are quickly introduced. In a New Yorker piece cited by Klein, Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes of how even an hour of discussion with skeptic Mick West "left me feeling vaguely demoralized." In contrast, phone calls with journalist and one time UFO activist Leslie Kean were "greatly pleasurable distractions that tended to absorb entire afternoons."

As framing goes, the narrative is quite clear. People with recognizable names say there could be something mysterious going on – something that happens to line up with decades of cherished entertainment narratives. This is a story rooted first and foremost in fun and wonder. Any interjection of contradictory facts, any deprival of said fun, makes one a wearisome party pooper.

One immediate problem for the party: Klein is wrong when he says Senator Reid "believed that there was crash debris held by Lockheed Martin." In a piece published by the Las Vegas Sun days before Klein's, Reid clarified: "I’ve never believed Lockheed had anything in that regard, even though a lot of people believe that — I don’t." He goes on to say about wreckage: "I never heard of anything, other than some conspiratorialists. So I don’t think that they’re credible that they’re things from outer space."

Klein is citing The New Yorker's Lewis-Kraus reporting on Reid. In the accompanying podcast for The New Yorker piece, Reid is quoted at greater length. Asked about claims regarding alien debris, he says, "I don't know about all that" and generally resists the notion. At the end of the clip he briefly mentions asking for information on the matter after being told that Lockheed might have debris, but confesses, "I don't know what all the numbers were." It is entirely unclear what numbers he is referencing. If follow-up questions were asked, they were not reported. In the end it is left to the Las Vegas Sun to ask the obvious question: who told you about this in the first place? The answer: apparently some "conspiratorialists."  

In short, focusing on "spaciousness of mystery" might be a road to improper framing of a specious mystery, instead.

Unsurprisingly, Klein's piece attracted critics rather quickly. So far, while critics have done better with the facts they've similarly lapsed into arguments about what important people say or don't say.

If It Ain't in the Paper it Ain't Real

On the other side of the ledger, journalist and keen media observer Keith Kloor has regularly pointed out shortcomings in UFO media coverage. Kloor argues on Twitter that Klein is essentially laundering a narrative created by UFO advocates such as Leslie Kean. Kloor points out that Kean, one of the coauthors of the 2017 New York Times UFO story, previously blogged about UFOs for Huffington Post. Perhaps more relevant, Kean at one point worked for a UFO lobbying organization funded by the Sci Fi channel and bolstered by UFO proponent and political insider John Podesta.

Kloor ably points out important wrinkles in the "authorities-are-interested-in-UFOs" narrative. Yes, Senator Reid was involved in setting up a program that studied UFO issues. But, the program was tiny by defense standards, and was contracted in less than transparent fashion to one of his wealthy constituents, billionaire and aficionado of things paranormal, Robert Bigelow. Figures associated with the effort, like the now ubiquitous Luis Elizondo, have not surfaced much in the way of concrete documentation for their claims.

Kloor doesn't make this next point, but I will. Bigelow, largely a donor to Republican causes, poured money into Reid's coffers during the life of the UFO program. He also made large dollar contributions to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee while Reid was majority leader. The donations mostly stopped when the program did.

Despite a good recitation of problems in the "authorities" narrative, Kloor himself ventures into the realm of arguing from social proof and multi-layered assumptions, writing:

Again, I ask you to consider the notion that gravity-defying UFOs are repeatedly penetrating restricted military airspace. Does that pass the smell test to you? And if it does, and you really think this is happening, why aren’t defense journalists, including those at the aerospace/aviation trade publications, sniffing out this story?

Asked about his comments on Twitter, Kloor put a finer point on the argument:

In short: there can't really be a national security problem involving unidentified aircraft flying into military airspace. If it was a problem, we'd know about – well known journalists would be covering it. They aren't, so it isn't happening.

This is just an inversion in the same style of Klein's argumentation. Klein sees outlines of evidence in the statements of a few authorities. Kloor sees lack of statements from other, different authorities as evidence against.

Both are premised on the idea that things become true when the right people say that they are. Both tack-on unnecessary assumptions: why do unidentified aircraft have to be gravity-defying or based on exotic technology?

In Klein's case, he is missing the obvious possibility that authorities don't know what they are talking about, or are speaking out of motivated reasoning of one kind or another. For his part, Kloor is assuming that journalists never miss a significant story – or that they are actually equipped to cover the story in the first place.

Another View Altogether

The "sensemaking" so far – from all quarters – misses the mark entirely. It focuses entirely too much on what certain people say (or don't say) and not enough on the details of what is actually happening.

Let's start with the facts.

First, we know quite conclusively that unidentified aircraft are encountered by the United States military and over sensitive infrastructure. There have been scores of reports of unidentified drones flying over nuclear facilities. A separate incident of drones flying over THAAD anti-ballistic missile batteries was reported in Guam in 2019. Marc Cecotti and I jointly reported on multiple incursions over Navy ships off the coast of Southern California that occurred in July of 2019. The underlying stories are based on reams of FOIA disclosures and on publicly available data.

The Navy has also openly acknowledged this. Jeff Schogol of Task & Purpose asked the current Chief of Naval Operations about our reporting. His response: the aircraft are still unidentified, and other service branches and foreign armed services have been impacted, too.

Okay, so these incidents occur. But how else do we know they are a national security problem? We know because when we ask for more information, we're told we can't receive it because it involves infrastructure that is critical to national defense. When we ask Department of Defense spokespeople about these incidents, we're likewise told they have to limit their answers in order to protect national security.

To date, there is nothing in any of the reporting above that suggests these aircraft are "gravity defying" or otherwise "spooky." Schogol rather forthrightly asked the Chief of Naval Operations if there was any indication that the aircraft are extraterrestrial. The reply: "No, I can’t speak to that - I have no indications at all of that.”

However, because these are stories about unidentified aircraft, they instantly become UFO stories. When something becomes a UFO story journalistic framing often reverts to a crude ontological debate: is it aliens, or not? The presumption always seems to be that if it isn't aliens, it probably is not all that interesting.

In reading Klein's piece, I'm hard pressed to understand why aliens are the first and best framing for a defense story. I'm even harder pressed to understand why the appropriate reaction to a security issue is to bask in the "spaciousness of the mystery."

Instead, my colleagues and I see a troubling national security story and an accompanying need for accountability from the military and government. What a drag, right?

To be sure, we don't have explanations for each and every case – maybe there really is something weird going on. But, based on what we do concretely know the evidence points far more strongly towards terrestrial sources. That shouldn't really be a surprise to anyone. Why leap to aliens in an age of drone proliferation? Klein's framing seems to ignore an entire fact pattern in favor of a perhaps flawed reading of a few former officials rather nebulous comments.

Equally, when Kloor writes that nothing is happening because no one with media weight is covering it, I can't help but to groan.

As Kloor himself points out, mainstream coverage of the topic has been abysmal for decades. As Klein and Kean demonstrate, the "heavyweights" seem more interested in narrative-driven reporting and reveling in the mystery than no-nonsense investigative journalism.

It seems there is an obvious explanation for why there isn't more reporting. Journalists by and large have simply dropped the ball on the topic. When they do cover it, they opt for the easier and more fun alien narratives. More to the point: many of the journalists involved aren't equipped to cover more technical stories – especially when they require unusual methods.

Another Way to Work

There is an old adage: when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

If you examine how outlets cover the UFO subject, you'll find much of the reporting relies on things people say. The "investigative" work often boils down to calling and emailing various people. More effective journalists will call and email people of more than one stripe in an effort to get more balanced views.

The problem is this: when you rely entirely on what people are willing to tell you for big stories, you're largely circumscribed to a limited set of journalistic situations. Typically, those situations involve someone who wants to make themselves look good, or someone who wants to settle a score with a rival or an institution.

I wrote elsewhere about the role of conflict and journalism about stories that matter in a piece on the cultural aspect of UFOs:

Finding out anything that matters causes friction. In science, new experiments disrupt old theories. In high level law enforcement, powerful people go to prison. In journalism, the real stories sting. They leave a mark. There is a lot of yelling the next day.

In the defense world, the people willing to just give a journalist a "story that matters" (one that will cause serious friction) tend to either be in dire straits or have personal grievances. For true impropriety, there are whistleblower mechanisms that protect people who work in sensitive jobs who need to expose wrongdoing. A journalist is not typically a first port of call, especially when classified or sensitive information is involved.

When someone tells you they observed national security wrongdoing but they are emphatically not a whistleblower, your guard should go up. Being a team player on a corrupt team doesn't make sense; it is a cue that your subject has motivations that go beyond simple integrity.

This issue of relying too heavily on "motivated" sources tends to accord with the media history of the UFO subject in the last few years. What newsgathering work have larger media players done that was not handed to them by someone with an agenda? By the accounts of all the players involved, the 2017 New York Times story was essentially hand-delivered by Christopher Mellon and Luis Elizondo. No grubby FOIA work required, though when Kean and Blumenthal tried their hand, they arguably botched the job by withholding disconfirming evidence.

Journalist readers will likely wish to object here. They might say "calling and emailing people is the job, by and large. What else am I supposed to do?"

There are alternative ways to work. When Marc Cecotti and I developed our story on the 2019 drone incident in Southern California we knew that sources probably would not talk – largely because they can't.

To develop more information, I wrote code to process gigabytes of ship location data. We created a massive geospatial database of all ship movements in an area of interest near California. We analyzed patterns over time to get a sense of what is "normal" and used that to find interesting leads. We took other known leads and used yet more custom code to track nearby ships to build a data-driven picture of what was happening. Using all of this, we filed dozens of pinpoint FOIA requests. Along the way we used other custom software I wrote to double-check that no experimental technology tests registered with the FCC could be responsible for the sightings.

This work was required to develop the story. Behind the scenes, I pursued sources with potential knowledge of the events in parallel with our data work. Not a single one of them produced an actionable lead. Phone calls and emails alone simply do not crack all cases. No amount of rehashing of opinions or insinuations from former officials will produce new data – it won't "gather the news" on defense stories that no one wants told.

This is not to say that there is no role for "human intelligence" type work. The story would never have happened if not for the work of Dave Beaty, who is among the best shoe-leather investigators in terms of doggedly finding witnesses. To Dave's immense credit, he doesn't just rely on what people tell him – he backs that up with FOIA requests of his own, too. What we did was to build on that work and to scale it using technology, and then to press even further into the details of the investigation of the incident. Without Dave's initial work though, there would have been no trail to follow.

After we published our story, Dave is the only investigator who contacted me and asked for tips on how to work with geospatial data and software for himself. In short, the man did the unthinkable in modern journalism – he actually cared enough to learn something new.

Notably, Marc and I are not journalists. Dave is not a print journalist either. I'm a software engineer who got annoyed by the lack of clarity around this topic. Marc works in aviation safety. Dave makes documentaries.

If we were to wait for "reputable," established journalists to do this work I suspect we would be waiting indefinitely. Too few journalists are prepared to put down the phone and open up the code editor.

When non-journalists like us try to step up to fill the gap, we're quickly reminded we're not journalists and that we should hand over our work to the real players – the same ones that routinely bungle stories and patently don't understand technical investigations. While other journalists rehash interviews with the same individuals, we produced new data, documents and quotes from currently serving military leaders. But, since it doesn't come from the people with the brand names, it must be that nothing is happening at all.

The bizarre situation now is that journalists at major news organizations are getting involved. To be honest, I thought I'd be happy to welcome the cavalry coming to do a job I'm admittedly not trained for. So far, they instead seem to be having a lot of fun thinking about the possibilities, but are not doing an awful lot to look at facts – except for the ones that they are led to by sources with specific motivations.