I know a lot of the media do their best when it comes to reporting science and astronomical-related stories, but sometimes they seem to go way out of their way – or, more accurately, not go out of their way at all – to report nonsense.
Case in point: Fox News in New York City. Yesterday, there were UFO reports from all over the city. Not to keep you in suspense, but those UFOs were actually hundreds of balloons released on Broadway to celebrate a visit by Madrid officials. You can see more about this by my friend Ben Radford and at Science-Based Parenting.
Note that balloons explain everything: the UFOs were in clusters, they moved randomly, they were seen as dots, nothing was reported on radar, they floated for hours, they slowly disappeared, the timing was right. As far as explanations go, we’re done here. [I’ll note that there were some reports of UFO earlier in the day, but those look just like balloons as well, probably from a different event.]
Now, I can forgive the Fox reporter for not knowing about the balloons; cases like this do happen. However, watch the video of the reporter: she clearly didn’t do any investigation at all of this other than to talk to a few people in the street (if the YouTube video gets taken down, you can watch it on the Fox page, but at lower res):
Pay attention around 35 seconds in. That star she spends a lot of time talking about is the planet Jupiter. Don’t believe me? To the right is a diagram I created using planetarium software showing Jupiter and its four big moons around the time the reporter’s talking about. Hmmmm. The blue flashing lights, broken up appearance, and tail she talks about are all clearly those four moons and Jupiter itself.
Again, I don’t expect a reporter to know what that might be, but come on. She sees something in the sky she couldn’t explain, and couldn’t talk to a single astronomer before going on the air? I hear Neil Tyson lives in New York City. Say.
Reports like this, which don’t do any actual investigating, damage both people’s perception of reality (reinforcing nonsense) and the ability of the news to cover actual, real events. And all it would’ve taken to fix this whole thing was a single phone call to an astronomer. The story would’ve still been fun and playful, but it also would’ve been accurate and had real science in it. Shouldn’t that be the goal of all such stories?