Lazy Reporting of UFO Phenomena

11265266_10152842947270957_2720874280904093587_nJust before the 4th of July holiday, there were reports of UFO sightings in Hemlock, Michigan.  The UFO story itself is neither noteworthy nor unusual for this sort of random lights-in-the-sky sighting; but I found the news report generated from the sightings interesting as an example of how shoddy, uncritical journalism can lead to the advancement of fringe beliefs.

The only media report of the UFOs, which have been given the name “The Hemlock Lights” is from WNEM 5 News, a local news broadcast. It is attributed to Nick Lulli and “the I-Team,” which I believe is a fancy way to say “compiled by cub reporters and research assistants.”Apparently, the I-Team was prompted into investigative action when “Viewers contacted TV5 on Facebook and said they’d been looking in the night sky near Hemlock and saw some strange lights.”

The report offers a montage of unverified snippets of anecdote, giving the impression that “something” is going on. Though it’s not stated, I’m assuming the witnesses they talked to were some of the Facebook posters; they offer such insights as the light was “really bright” and “twinkled” and “just hovered there”. There’s also some unlabeled pics of lights (presumably of the lights someone saw) and a video of, for some reason, lights filmed over Texas in 2008.

Right away, the critical news reader has to look at this and go, “there’s not much of a story here.” The I-Team wants to make this something newsworthy, though, so they dig back into their archives and pull up a news story from 13 years ago, when a local farmer found crop circles in his field — you know, those things that are commonly and easily faked by pranksters and artists? Apparently there were “lights in the sky” reported there, too.

Not content to leave it at that, they grasp even more at straws in at attempt to make this seem like some sort of UFO phenomenon. And I quote: “The I-team has obtained recently declassified documents from the United States Air Force, part of the once fabled ‘Project Blue Book’, some more than half a century old.” By “recently obtained,” I am assuming the I-Team Googled “Project Blue Book,” which is what I did to find the referenced reports. And since Project Blue Book was shut down in 1969, give or take a few years, every report is a half-century old or older. Oh, and none of the PBB reports happened in Hemlock, just “in the area” of Mid-Michigan.

So, just to lay bare the timeline here:

  • 1950s & 1960s: Stories were gathered in the general area by Project Blue Book
  • 2002 — Crops circles appear in a nearby farm
  • 2015 — “Hemlock lights” reported

That’s a pretty thin series of likely unconnected events, but the I-Team has assembled them in a flimsy attempt to make it sound like Hemlock is some sort of UFO hot-spot.

Again, I don’t mean to be hyper critical of this one report, which is obviously just a local newscast looking to fill time and create a teaser headline for their nightly news program. But it begs the question: how much does lazy reporting like this contribute to the perception of things like UFOs as real phenomena? The real story here is this: some people on Facebook told WNEM 5 News that they saw some bright lights in the sky, the end. But lazy reporting and the quest to fill time has turned this into a “phenomenon,” thereby assuring that the next Mid-Michigan farmer who looks up into the sky and sees something they can’t immediately identify is more likely to self-confirm, “Yup, this is a UFO, just like that one I heard about on the tee-vee,” and then spread that story to a friend, or a co-worker, or to the WNEM 5 News Facebook page, keeping alive beliefs that ought rightly to be shelved for lack of any real evidence to back them up.

Oh, one last thing. Late in the article, the I-Team actually contacted an astronomer. He said of the reports that “Based on what is known about the sky and the solar system, I would predict that it’s planet Venus” being misidentified by viewers. And funny thing, what did WNEM report just days before, around the time they must have been getting those UFO reports? This:

WNEM_VenusHmmm … I guess the I-Team should have been a little more thorough in their search of the WNEM archives before running their “Hemlock Lights” story.

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About Alison Hudson

Alison is a writer and educator living near Ann Arbor, MI. She blogs regularly about skepticism, games, and the transgender experience.
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One Response to Lazy Reporting of UFO Phenomena

  1. Ray says:

    Lighten up on the TV news folks. How can you not trust people who can smile so well?

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