Near the end of 2018, a startling claim made international headlines: “Pilots report seeing ‘very fast’ UFO above Ireland,” CNN reported. “If it wasn’t aliens, what was it?” The Washington Post asked.
News of the unidentified flying object flew across the globe like a meteor, which is what the mysterious entity most likely was, according to aviation and astronomy experts. As is often the case, that tidbit was buried at the bottom of most news stories.
UFO sightings are reported to local authorities or volunteer UFO groups with varying degrees of fanfare. A recent visit to the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) website features sightings logged from Canada to Mississippi. A pilot in Alabama reported seeing an “oddly shaped circular object” in 2017. A camper in Idaho spotted a “massive triangular craft” last summer.
People who claim to see UFOs are typically adamant about what they witnessed, though most space experts are unconvinced. “No serious astronomer gives any credence to any of these stories,” astrophysicist Martin Rees notably said in 2012. He’s right. UFO reports can be attributed to commercial or military jets, weather balloons, an odd cloud formation, a comet, or Venus (under certain atmospheric conditions, the planet can appear as a fast-moving, bright halo). Some intrepid photographers have even confused insects flying around a camera lens for alien aircrafts.
The truth is, the number of reported UFO sightings have actually “fallen significantly in recent years,” says Peter Davenport, director of the Seattle-based National UFO Reporting Center, whose organization keeps a monthly tally. Sightings have fluctuated for decades, peaking in 2014 with 8,619 documented reports of UFOs. In 2018, 3,236 sightings were recorded.
America’s fascination with UFOs, however, isn’t going anywhere, much to the chagrin of scientists who thought we’d left our collective extraterrestrial frenzy behind decades ago. Since the first publicized UFO sighting by a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold in 1947 — he reported spotting “nine bright saucer-like objects” while flying his plane in Washington state — extraterrestrial contact has served as a Hollywood muse and continuous source of media fodder.
Today, Ancient Aliens, a controversial pseudo-documentary series that argues space aliens shaped humanity, is the History Channel’s most popular show. Recently, the network unveiled “Project Blue Book,” a new show based on the U.S. Air Force’s investigation into UFOs during the 1950s and 1960s. Another upcoming TV series, based on “real life” UFO events at a U.S military base in Britain, is being produced by Sony.
Yet given the consensus among scientists that space aliens aren’t visiting Earth, it’s tough to understand how reports of a UFO streaking across Ireland makes news headlines with little skepticism. Until recently, the topic had largely been relegated to the tabloids and fringe outlets.
A major impetus for the resurgent interest in UFOs from news organizations can be traced to a December 2017 front-page article in the New York Times, which revealed that the U.S. government had, in the recent past, spent $22 million on a secretive project run by the Pentagon to research and assess “the threat posed” by UFOs, according to the piece. The Times story set off a flurry of wide-eyed coverage in prestigious mainstream organizations such as NPR, CNN, and every other major broadcast news outlet. The reports suggested that the military is taking UFO sightings seriously, even if scientists are not.
Such prominent attention from the press sends a signal to the public, says Glenn Sparks, a communications professor at Purdue, who studies how beliefs and emotions are influenced by the media. “If UFOs are getting credible news coverage, and the news media are taking it seriously, that is likely to have an impact on how the average person might think about it,” he says. This media coverage, he adds, also fuels an already robust entertainment market for the topic.
Understanding our latest round of extraterrestrial fervor requires an awareness of how UFOs became woven into the fabric of American culture in the first place. While Hollywood certainly has played an influential role, I argue it’s the news media that keeps the specter of extraterrestrials alight in our skies and minds.