How Not to Cover UFOs
Space shot: I don’t believe Maine attracts any tourists from outer space traveling in flying saucers. I think most people who spot strange lights in the sky over this state aren’t necessarily lying, stoned, or crazy. They’re just mistaken. They’re seeing ordinary phenomena from unfamiliar angles or under unusual circumstances and incorrectly interpreting the information.
Same deal with ghosts, Bigfoot, werewolves, vampires and much of the other pseudo-scientific or mystical nonsense that makes its way into the media on slow news days. It’s entertaining. But it’s not real. So long as reporters approach these types of stories with the same skepticism they’d automatically employ if they were interviewing a politician about balancing the budget, there’s no problem with having a little fun. But they should try to remain objective enough to avoid looking foolish.
Now that I’ve laid out my prejudices, let’s take a look at the article John Crawford wrote for the Feb. 24 issue of the Portland Phoenix (disclosure: My weekly political column runs in the Phoenix). Crawford examines what he claims is a cluster of UFO sightings and reports of haunted houses in Stratton and vicinity in western Maine. His piece has the gloss of objectivity, but none of the substance.
Let’s start with that cluster. If you go to any city or town in Maine, you can easily find a dozen people who claim to have seen bizarre occurrences. UFO reports are fairly evenly distributed across the landscape, and I’ve yet to find a neighborhood built more than ten years ago that doesn’t have at least one house that’s reputedly haunted. In that, Stratton is no different from anyplace else. So, there’s nothing particularly newsworthy about it.
But set that aside. We’re just here to have fun, right?
Also, set aside Crawford contention that Eustis, where there are further sightings, is “not far from Stratton.” Stratton is actually a village in the town of Eustis.
Let’s get to the facts. Such as:
Crawford reports on a woman who saw “four glowing orbs of different colors, each about the size of a dinner plate, floating in a field.” The woman admitted she didn’t know what she was looking at, so how could she know how big the lights were or whether they were in a field or further away or closer. She couldn’t, but it’s a common mistake UFO spotters make. What they think they saw is warped by their assumptions about size and distance.
There’s more. The orbs “pulled within a foot or two of the front door.” How did she determine that?
Another instance: “about two hundred feet in the air, an oval shape the size of a car hovered.” There’s no way to figure either the height or size of an unknown object just by looking at it.
More: “a mysterious bell-shaped object about four stories tall floating behind someone's house.” Or how about: “implausibly fast-moving lights flying north of Stratton, off of Route 27. They made no noise as they zoomed across the sky.” Could the lack of sound have anything to do with distance? Could the speed by related to the observation itself being “implausible”?
I like a nice monster story as much as the next person. But for a story to be good, it has to be well-reported. That means asking the same probing questions for a soft feature as for a hard-hitting expose. Otherwise, it’s just spreading folklore as if it were fact.
Hell freezes over: OK, maybe not. But there must have been frost on the devil’s tush on Feb. 23, when the MaineToday Media newspapers ran an op-ed by Republican state Sen. Roger Katz criticizing the purchase of part of MaineToday by Donald Sussman, a major donor to Democratic causes and the husband of a Democratic congresswoman. Katz raises a bunch of good points about the ethical problems this will likely cause, many of which had previously been raised in this space. MTM hasn’t been this accommodating to its critics in nearly two decades. But if this is the start of a new trend toward more openness, it’s welcome.
Of course, an excellent next step would be for someone in authority at the company to respond to Katz’s concerns in a straightforward manner, explaining how the papers will deal with the Sussman conflict of interest, as well as those of other board members, such as Robert C.S. Monks.
Such an occurrence would undoubtedly have Satan strapping on his ice skates.
Innate conflict: There’s probably no way a reporter can cover a story about the public’s right to know without somebody raising questions about objectivity. Most journalists are intrinsically biased in favor of governmental transparency. It just comes with the job, like computers and notebooks.
So I sympathize with staff writer Eric Russell of the Bangor Daily News in crafting his article on the Feb. 23 public hearing on a bill to make the working papers of the executive branch exempt from freedom of information requests. Not only did Russell have to contend with the perception that he was biased on the issue, he also had to cover his boss, Bangor Daily editor-in-chief Mike Dowd, who submitted testimony against the measure in his capacity as president of the Maine Press Association.
Russell deserves credit for doing the best he could, as does Maine Public Radio’s Susan Sharon. The rest of the news media took a pass. Whether that was for ethical reasons (Capitol News Service’s Mal Leary served on the committee that examined the issue and testified against the bill) or just lack of courage is a question more open than the governor’s personal files.
Huang heads west: Josie Huang, the co-host of Maine Public Radio’s flagship news program “Maine Things Considered,” is doing her last broadcast on Feb. 24. Huang – who’s been at the Maine Public Broadcasting Network since 2008 and in Maine print and broadcast journalism for a dozen years – is off to Los Angeles, where she’ll be a reporter and producer for public station KPCC.
She said she was excited by the move, but found deciding to leave this state to be a “heartbreaking decision.”
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.