The Media Today

The Uncertainty Files

February 13, 2023
This May 18, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows Earth from 36,000 nautical miles away as photographed from the Apollo 10 spacecraft during its trans-lunar journey toward the moon. (NASA via AP)

After The Balloon, The UFOs. (Or “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” if you prefer.) Since Friday, US officials—in conjunction, on one occasion, with their Canadian counterparts—have ordered the shootdown of objects that appeared in the skies over Alaska, northern Canada, and Michigan, just days after US planes also shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon that had traversed the continental United States before plopping into the sea off South Carolina. Unlike in the case of The Balloon, it’s still not at all clear what the three things shot down over the weekend were, making them, by definition, unidentified flying objects. Predictably, the sci-fi connotations of that phrase have bled into news coverage. “US General Doesn’t Rule Out Aliens as UFOs Mount,” one magazine headline read (and not in the National Enquirer). The New York Times, CNN, and Politico, meanwhile, all referenced “the truth” being “out there,” an old tagline from The X-Files. (It is, perhaps, fitting that Gillian Anderson is playing journalists these days.)

As I wrote last Monday, the Biden administration was not initially very forthcoming about The Balloon, with stony-faced Pentagon officials batting away media questions (some of them admittedly silly) and confirming only their assessment of what The Balloon was and the level of threat they viewed it as posing. (The administration declassified more details on Thursday, though these had mostly already appeared in the pages of the Washington Post.) So far, at least, officials have not been fully forthcoming about the weekend shootdowns either. Rather than volunteer information about the first incident, over Alaska, John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, waited until a reporter asked him about “rumors” of “another Chinese balloon” before reading what sounded like a prepared statement. Lawmakers, including senior congressional Democrats, have expressed concern about the overall lack of transparency. “I have real concerns about why the administration is not being more forthcoming with everything that it knows,” Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on Meet the Press yesterday. “I looked at social media this morning [and saw] sudden, massive speculation about alien invasions and additional Chinese action or Russian action. In the absence of information, people’s anxiety leads them into potentially destructive areas.”

Himes acknowledged that the administration may not, at this point, have much information to share about the shootdowns, though he described this as his “guess.” And this wasn’t the only Meet the Press speculation as to why we’re having to speculate. Chuck Todd, the host, suggested that the White House had perhaps been reluctant to front up “uncomfortable” news in a week when it was trying to orient coverage around Biden’s State of the Union address and his domestic priorities. Symone Sanders-Townsend, a former administration spokesperson turned host on MSNBC, wondered whether Kirby had feared that volunteering the Alaska information before being asked might have made it “seem more dire than what it actually is.”

All of these things or none of them may be true; as the weekend progressed, and officials did speak some more with reporters, it seemed increasingly clear that the administration is itself still in the dark about the incidents, though, given the Pentagon’s strict secrecy rules, there’s more than one interpretation of its officials not being “able” to say more. As I wrote recently, US officials tend to classify far too much information. It is, of course, hard to say for sure exactly what has been classified in these cases, and whether that’s legitimate. But officials would be wise, as Himes suggested, to weigh the risks of greater disclosure against the risks of what might fill an information vacuum here. Even setting out what they don’t know—in a clear, precise, unified, and prominent manner—would be helpful.

Of course, the press has a responsibility to do likewise, and gaps in official information—whether officials actually have that information or not—are not a license for us to speculate. We, too, should state clearly what we know and don’t about the downed objects, and avoid hype where possible. The headlines centering a general not ruling out alien responsibility may have been accurate (and were certainly clickable), but they weren’t really helpful. The general in question said he hadn’t ruled anything out, and that he’d leave it to the intelligence services to investigate further. Afterward, another defense official told Politico that there was “no indication” of alien involvement. (The official spoke on the condition of anonymity.)

While we’re on the subject of aliens, recent days have brought to mind the last time that we saw a concerted period of coverage of UFOs: in the spring of 2021, when the federal government released a report—first to Congress, then publicly—on unidentified aerial phenomena that had been observed, often by military pilots, moving in ways that defied easy explanation. Back then, as well, officials said that they had found no evidence of alien activity but couldn’t rule it out either, and the declaration drove media headlines (and abundant X-Files references). The report stoked a media storm over UFOs; former President Barack Obama appeared on a late-night show and spoke of “objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are”; the topic got the New Yorker treatment and the 60 Minutes treatment. While some journalists were having their minds blown, others criticized the coverage as overly credulous, questioning the credibility of recurring sources and regretting that the whole episode might serve as a gateway to conspiracism (as if we needed one more of those).

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Taken as a whole, the coverage in 2021 explored a sort of liminal space between dismissive ridicule, wide-eyed wonder, and hard-nosed objectivity. As my then–CJR colleague Lauren Harris wrote at the time, this was not necessarily a comfortable space for journalists to inhabit. “When a premise that was once considered taboo becomes permissible, the relative subjectivity of our industry is revealed,” Harris wrote. “The recent spate of UFO coverage points toward the difficulty of reporting on things that we, as a society, don’t yet know or understand—or things we don’t interrogate because we think we already understand them.” Writing for the Washington Post, Charlie Warzel made a related point, situating the UFO report alongside a number of other mind-bending stories from the time, not least the pandemic. “Put together, these disorienting events can create precisely the sense of confusion that disinformation researchers, fact-checkers and swaths of the mainstream media try to bulwark against,” he wrote. “Lately, the task feels increasingly difficult as many of the world’s biggest real-life stories are complex and constantly evolving topics, where today’s fantastical theory could become tomorrow’s truth.”

In their articles, Harris and Warzel both highlighted journalists’ relationship to uncertainty—an omnipresent fact of life that often gets downplayed or glossed over in an industry that privileges finding concrete truths, and quickly. A similar dynamic has been at play in the weekend shootdown stories. These incidents feel more grounded than the 2021 UFO frenzy—a pun that I absolutely intended, since it reflects that the current coverage has been oriented, at least for now, around concrete individual objects that have been taken out of the sky for further analysis. The stories also followed on the heels of the Chinese spy balloon, which was not unidentified (at least, not for long). Even with The Balloon, though, a bunch of important questions—about precisely what it was doing, but also the political rationale, or lack thereof, behind its flight—are still unanswered. And the weekend shootdowns coming so soon after The Balloon risks giving rise to assumptions about the new objects—that they are foreign; that they are a threat—that news coverage can easily amplify (even implicitly) if we’re not careful. The shootdowns are clearly a news story because, well, the things got shot down. And we’re right to request more certainty from officials. Until we get it, though, the story can’t be bigger than one of uncertainty.

Arguably, the past story about uncertainty that is most instructive here is not the 2021 UFOs craze but the pandemic, which constantly pushed the boundaries of our knowledge and how we communicated it. Especially at first—when the virus was very new and we lacked the testing capability to establish anything like its true spread—it was important for the press to emphasize the limits of our knowledge rather than present what little we could confirm as the whole story. Some outlets rose admirably to that challenge; others—with their daily tallies, for example, of cases rather than confirmed cases—less so. Fundamentally, the 2021 UFOs story, for all its otherworldly mystique, was a data story, too; indeed, one of the key findings of the government report was a need for better data on such phenomena, with members of the military encouraged to report weird sightings without feeling mocked or stigmatized. Something similar is true now. Just because we’re learning about—and, now, shooting down—more UFOs doesn’t necessarily mean that there are more UFOs in the sky; indeed, our skies have been cluttered with all sorts of stuff for a while. Likewise, an uptick in media coverage of a given trend doesn’t always tell us how important or prevalent that trend is in reality. We’re far too flawed for that.

As the Post and others reported over the weekend, government analysts have, post–The Balloon, changed the ways in which they filter and assess radar and other aerial data, “much like a car buyer unchecking boxes on a website to broaden the parameters of what can be searched,” as the Post put it. This doesn’t mean that the recent incidents don’t reflect some sort of concerted new threat. But it at least applies vital, cooling context to the sense that we’ve just lived through what the Times described as “a helter-skelter weekend involving what at times seemed like an invasion of unidentified flying objects.” The Times story nailed this context—after the above description and obligatory X-Files reference. The truth is always out there. Whether we can see it—or are even looking—is a different matter.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday was Super Bowl Sunday, and yet Biden didn’t sit for the traditional presidential interview with the network broadcasting the game, which in this case was Fox. Confusion as to whether Biden would take part crescendoed on Friday, when the White House said that Biden had agreed to be interviewed by Fox Soul, a streaming service aimed at Black viewers, only for Fox to cancel. Fox denied this; the Times has more.
  • Last week, a court ruled that El Diario de El Paso and El Diario de Juarez, a pair of Spanish-language newspapers operating near the border between Texas and Mexico, must face a defamation suit brought against them by Javier Corral Jurado, the former governor of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The papers had covered a property dispute involving Corral; Bloomberg Law’s Janet Miranda has more details of the case.
  • On Friday, Marina Ovsyannikova—a former Russian state TV staffer who protested on air against the invasion of Ukraine—revealed at a press conference that she is now living in exile in France, and detailed how Reporters Without Borders helped her escape house arrest in Russia last year. She said she used a wire cutter to break her electronic tag, then fled to the border in various cars (and on foot after getting stuck in the mud).
  • In the UK, William Turvill, of the New Statesman, reports on internal “mutiny” and “rage” among staff at BBC News, much of it directed at Richard Sharp, the broadcaster’s chairman, who, appearing before a parliamentary committee last week, blasted the BBC’s reporting on a controversial personal loan that Sharp once helped facilitate for Boris Johnson. One staffer described the atmosphere in the newsroom as “funereal.”
  • And The Guardian’s Jess Cartner-Morley explores how “Architectural Digest became the new Vogue.” The pandemic “centered our domestic lives in the news,” Cartner-Morley writes. “Add to these shifts an insatiable appetite for the ‘real lives’ of celebrities and it is clear why interior decor magazines are eclipsing traditional fashion glossies—and why videos of celebrity home tours” are driving younger readers to once-niche publications.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.