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If you want to know how the media created and then fueled a phenomenon that is embedded in popular culture, this thread for you. I’m piggybacking off a story I wrote for the Feb issue of @medium magazine. 1/
What follows is an elaboration and supporting material. But before I get into all that, let’s look at a related, present-day story making a splash today. I’m referring to this piece and catchy headline. 2/
This is a WaPo story about a distinguished astronomer (Avi Loeb) from a prestigious university (Harvard) theorizing (in a recently published scientific paper) that a mysterious space rock discovered several years ago in our solar system is the product of an alien civilization.3/
The theory initially got massive mainstream media coverage last Nov because Loeb is not some random scientist; he is the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department.

Many of Leob’s colleagues don’t agree with him; they think the space object is a comet. 4/
But Loeb is a distinguished scientist talking up the likelihood of it having alien provenance, so that continues to attract a lot of press attention, much to the consternation of his colleagues. 5/
As @marinakoren notes, such talk about extraterrestrial life “sounds better coming from an expert at a high-prestige institution.” 6/
In her piece, Koren quotes Michael Varnum, a psychology professor at Arizona State who says: “Part of what reinforces that credibility is coverage in news outlets with reputations for serious journalism.” 7/
Which leads me back to my deep dive into how UFOs suddenly became a “serious story” in 2018 (according to the Washington Post), decades after being relegated to the tabloids and fringe media. 8/
As you’ll see from my piece, some former Pentagon officials & a crusading journalist helped elevate UFOs into the news via the NYT. Others have commented on the problematic nature of the NYT story. Read science writer @JasonColavito for the details. 9/
As @ManyBrain wrote, the Dec 2017 NYT piece drove the internet “slightly more bananas than usual” after its story implied “that extraterrestrials are real and the U.S. government has been tracking them for years." Read his critique. 10/
What made me look into this more closely was the breathless follow-on stories the dubious NYT story triggered in wider media. Here’s a one-stop-shop of that coverage courtesy of a devoted UFO buff. (Browse the links from Dec/2017 thru winter of 2018.) 11/
Watching this play out got me interested in the curious cast of characters driving the story. That led to write this Newsweek piece last year.12/
Then after reading up on the history of UFOs, I got curious about how this phenomenon remains an enduring story long after it first made headlines in the late 1940s. How did that happen? I lay out the basics in this story.13/
More to come throughout the day, including a look at the bogus Roswell narrative and much more….Meanwhile, check out this fascinating BBC interview with one of the historians that informed my recent piece.14/
Anyone even vaguely familiar with major UFO tropes knows that crashed saucers and alien bodies recovered by the government is a big one. Roswell! But the actual 1947 incident at the heart of the modern-day myth was a footnote in history for a long time. 15/
When the first UFO wave of sightings struck America in 1947, one report did stand out: Someone had found pieces of a “flying disc” on a ranch in Roswell, New Mexico, according to a local newspaper 16/
A press release from a nearby military base identified the object as a weather balloon. The incident quickly faded from headlines as the UFO epidemic spread across the country in the summer and Fall of 1947. In fact, that wasn't the real story. 17/
Decades later, the U.S. military disclosed that the object was actually a spy balloon. It contained an instrument used to monitor sonic booms from anticipated nuclear tests by the Soviet Union. Here's a nice write-up of "Project Mogul." 18/
Anyway, unlike other sightings from 1947, particularly Kenneth Arnold’s famous report that helped coin the "flying saucer" term, Roswell did not serve as gruel for breathless tales in the media. It went largely forgotten for 30 yrs. 19/
Then, in 1980, "The Roswell Incident" was published. (One of the book's co-authors had previously written a best-seller about the Bermuda Triangle, which was a hot topic in the 1970s.). The book claimed to reveal long-suppressed information about a crashed flying saucer. 20/
A UFO myth was in the making. As the Skeptical Inquirer notes in a 2012 piece: “The Roswell Incident launched the modern wave of UFO crash/retrieval conspiracy beliefs, promoted by additional books, television shows and myriad other venues.” 21/
A manufactured controversy was created from a “media bandwagon effect,” the Skeptical Inquirer piece argues. I tend to agree. Similar media amplification has time and again propelled fantastical UFO-related narratives into the mainstream. 22/
Another good example of this dynamic: The spate of alien abduction stories that suddenly emerged to wide notice about thirty years ago. ET’s, you might recall, were snatching people in the dead of night and performing intrusive medical examinations on them. However... 23/
However, this creepy "abduction phenomenon" that emerged in the 1970s & 1980s should be distinguished from the "contactee phenomenon" of the 1950s. That was wild! Once UFOs became a thing back in the day, all sorts of people started claiming they had made contact with aliens. 24/
These were pretty innocuous tales the contactees told. Fun stuff! Have a listen. 25/
Contrast these intergalactic adventures with the horror stories that spread in the 1980s after a bunch of influential writers put a new twist on alien abduction. Scholars attribute the modern-day phenomenon to a string of best-selling books by three authors, in particular. 26/
That would be Bud Hopkins, Whitley Strieber and Harvard's John Mack. These three writers also gained wide publicity in the media, and this print and TV coverage surely had a big impact... 27/
Hopkins, before he took up "recovering" memories of abductees through hypnosis (yeah, that was a thing) was a well-known artist. He became so consumed by alien abductions that he even created an organization (called the Intruders Foundation) to help ostensible victims. 28/
Incidentally, later in Hopkins' life, Leslie Kean (a co-author of the NYT story discussed earlier in this thread) was a close friend/companion to Hopkins. Whatever. Her involvement in various UFO organization should have disqualified her from reporting on the subject for NYT. 29/
The backstory to Hopkins is pretty interesting in of itself and speaks to how a life-long interest in UFOs can morph into an offshoot like the alien abduction phenomenon. 30/
Whitley Strieber’s popular account of his own supposed abduction experience was later made into a movie starring Christopher Walken. There is a kind of feedback loop (books > movies > media attention > ) that fuels the phenomenon. 31/
And lets not leave out John Mack's influence. He was a prominent, Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard psychiatrist, who brought a pseudo-academic legitimacy to the subject of alien abductions. (that was widely criticized by his peers). The media loved his Harvard affiliation. 32/
Sound familiar? Today, journalists (including myself) are drawn to Avi Loeb, Harvard's chief astronomer, even though he, too, is advancing ideas not supported by evidence, according to his peers. Anyway, Mack was a huge media magnet. Just one example. 33/
Hopkins Streiber and Mack--via their books & the widespread attention they drew--undoubtedly seeded the minds of many ppl who researchers say possess certain psychological traits that predispose them to thinking they were taken hostage by aliens. 34/
I could go on, but you get the idea. I'll wind down this long thread with a few thoughts on the media's role in the fueling of these UFO/abduction narratives. And it has to do with the symbiotic role between the media and entertainment worlds. 35/
When I recently spoke with David O’Leary, the creator and co-producer of History Channel’s “Project Blue Book,” he told me that he’s been fascinated with the UFO topic ever since he watched a 1995 documentary on Fox called “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?” 36/
The show, which featured grainy footage of three U.S. government pathologists supposedly dissecting an alien corpse, was an international sensation; it was seen by millions initially & then rebroadcast. (Never mind that it proved to be a hoax.) 37/
O’Leary also recalls being wowed by a two-hour ABC primetime special titled, “UFOs—Seeing is Believing.” The documentary aired in 2005 and was narrated by the eminent news anchor Peter Jennings, just before he died. 38/
In the 2000s, credulous examinations of spooky UFO claims appeared on CBS (its respected 48 Hours news program) and on CNN. Compare these to Walter Cronkite's science-based interrogation of UFO claims in1966. (Bonus: appearance of young Carl Sagan) 39/
Some yrs ago, Phil @BadAstronomer Plait wrote: “If UFOs really were buzzing us as much as the media and UFO proponents would have us believe, then astronomers would overwhelmingly report the majority of them.” That doesn't happen, of course. 40/
When i was writing my @Medium piece, Glenn Sparks, a communications professor at Purdue, talked about the "agenda-setting" theory WRT to media effects. academic.oup.com/poq/article-ab…
"Research on this theory shows that news coverage plays distinct roles in our society," Sparks says. 41/
"First, it tells people what to thinK ABOUT," he continues." If the news is covering stories ABOUT ufos, then consumers of that news are more likely to be thinking about and talking about UFOs than other topics." 42/
Sparks: "Second, not only do media tell us what to think about, they tell us what to THINK. This is done primarily through the way stories are framed...." 43/
"If stories about ufos are framed with a focus on credible reports of their existence with little focus on scientific skepticism, then consumers are more likely to think that ufos might actually exist and should be taken seriously." 44/
"If, on the other hand, the news frames these stories in a context that includes scientists expressing skepticism, consumers are more likely to doubt the existence of UFOs and conclude that the phenomenon is not one to be taken seriously." 45/
Sparks says that "my own experimental research on this topic confirms these outcomes." tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.108…
I'd be interested in seeing more research on this topic, if folks want to recommend additional references. 46/
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