The Decline in Newspaper Coverage of UFO sightings

One of the more striking features of the UFO phenomenon has been the emergence of voices from within the ufology community – particularly those of veteran investigators – claiming that organized interest in UFOs has been on the decline for some time now (for an interesting discussion of the subject, see Dr. David Clarke’s post from 2012, “Ufology: Dead Again?”). To be sure, this assessment is certainly not shared by all enthusiasts and researchers. But there is enough evidence out there (e.g., the cancellation of conferences, declining membership in organizations, etc.) to justify examining the question more carefully.

I recently decided to look at one small piece of this larger sociological question, namely: Is there evidence of a decline in newspaper coverage of UFOs? The chart below shows the results of my examination of coverage among 25 U.S. newspapers from 1985 to 2014. The newspapers were selected on the basis of (1) their being indexed by NewsBank with records dating back to at least 1985 and (2) their geographical and market diversity.

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Articles with headlines about UFOs or flying saucers in 25 U.S. newspapers, 1985-2014

The results are interesting, I think. They do, in fact, indicate a general decline in coverage. That said, there were three large spikes in interest – in 1987, 1997, and 2007 – that interrupted the overall pattern. Results like this raise as many questions as they provide answers. How do we account for the spikes (I have some answers, but feel free to chime in)? Is there anything behind the 10-year cycles? Why do newspapers appear to have lost interest in the subject since the late-1990s? What’s the relationship between this decline and the apparent setbacks being experienced by many UFO organizations?

I would be interested in hearing the thoughts of readers.

 

 

UFOs are Art: James Rigberg’s Flying Saucer News

Cover of Flying Saucers News from 1956 (courtesy of the Archives for the Unexplained)

Cover of Flying Saucers News from 1956 (courtesy of the Archives for the Unexplained)

UFO sightings have inspired not only stories. They also have stirred witnesses and UFO researchers to try to capture the experience in imagery. Drawings, paintings, sketches, photographs, and films have all been used as a way to try to better communicate to others the perceived reality of unidentified flying objects and their crews.

The cover pictured here is from the American magazine Flying Saucer News. First appearing in March 1955, it was published in New York City by James S. Rigberg. Rigberg was the head of the Flying Saucer News Club and ran a bookstore on Third Avenue in New York City for years, specializing in paranormal and new age books and magazines. Rigberg apparently moved the shop at some point to West 45th Street in New York.

James Rigberg (in sweater and tie to the right) in his bookstore, featured in an article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1956. Image from John Kobler,

James Rigberg (in sweater and tie to the right) in his bookstore, featured in an article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1956. Image from John Kobler, “He Runs Flying-Saucer Headquarters,” Saturday Evening Post, 10 March 1956.

Blogger Richard Aguilar recalls visiting the shop in the mid-1970s as an eager, young ufologist:

The store was about the size of a shoebox bodega on the street level of a five-story apartment building at 359 West 45th Street. The window display was a low-budget DIY affair—maybe a pie tin spacecraft hanging by a thread and some books. Inside, running along the two longer walls, you would find steel bookcases crammed with UFO, metaphysical, and self-improvement books and magazines. More books were neatly displayed on a table in the center. The space was so tight and the aisles so narrow, that it could only comfortably accommodate about three customers at a time. Usually I would have the entire store to myself.

The do-it-yourself ethos described by Augilar is something that has characterized the vast majority of those historically involved in the UFO and alien contact movements.

The graphic design here follows a modernist style characteristic of some in the 1950s, with crisp lines and geometric shapes. In the foreground is an image of a flying saucer. But this is not just any flying saucer. It is clearly supposed to be an example of the flying saucer claimed to have been encountered by George Adamski, easily the most famous – and influential – of those claiming to have made direct contact with extraterrestrials (“contactees”) in the 1950s.

Photograph Adamski supposedly took of a flying saucer he encountered in the mid-1940s.. From: http://ovni007.tripod.com/id83.html

Photograph Adamski supposedly took of a flying saucer he encountered in the early 1950s. From: http://ovni007.tripod.com/id83.html

Why “Flying Saucers?”

This parabola-shaped flying wing was developed by German designers Reimar and Walter Horten during the Third Reich. U.S. authorities after the war proved very interested in discovering the technology behind it. From: http://www.educatinghumanity.com/2011/06/ufos-ufo-news-ufo-video-ufos-that-are.html

This parabola-shaped flying wing was developed by German designers Reimar and Walter Horten during the Third Reich. U.S. authorities after the war proved very interested in discovering the technology behind it.
From: http://www.educatinghumanity.com/2011/06/ufos-ufo-news-ufo-video-ufos-that-are.html

When people learn of my interest in the history of UFOs and aliens, I am often asked, “Why flying saucers?” What they generally mean by this is, why did the image of extraterrestrial spacecraft take the shape of “flying saucers?” Why not something else?

The question of “why” is always a tricky one for us historians. Answering it always depends on what kind of explanation you’re looking for. So it actually can be a pretty imprecise way of posing a question. That is why most historians tend to prefer to pose questions in terms of “how” rather than “why.” So, then, how exactly did the image of “flying saucers” come about?

Of course, those who have believed that flying saucers do in fact exist in reality have a ready-made explanation – that’s how they were designed by their makers, they would say. Now, some witnesses and believers have contended that aliens civilizations are behind these vehicles, but many others have been of the view that the flying objects are terrestrial in origin, the creation of secret government programs. In either event, both groups believe one must look to aeronautics to explain the design.

If, however, we adopt what could be called an ethnographic approach to the question – this would insist that the researcher adopts a sympathetic, but critical, distance between herself and those she studies – then it’s possible to break the original question down into several.

First, have witnesses in fact reported only or primarily seeing “flying saucers?” It turns out that that assumption is false. As discussed in the previous blog entry on the Ghost Rocket Scare of 1946, most people in Sweden at the time actually reported seeing rockets and missiles. And during the early years of sightings in the late forties, some also described seeing cigar-shaped objects, while others claimed to have seen lit or colored balls. The UFO typology chart below, developed in 1967, shows some of the range of what witnesses reported seeing by then. So, while “flying saucers” have historically predominated among witness reports, other kinds of flying objects have also been reported.

The next questions then are, when and how did the term “flying saucer” start being used? As I have explained in a recent article (and based on the research of journalist and folklorist David Clarke), in June 1947, a private pilot by the name of Kenneth Arnold was flying over Washington state in the U.S. when, as he recounted, he saw what looked like nine odd-shaped aircraft flying in formation at around 10,000 feet. Arnold described them as “flat like a pie pan and somewhat bat-shaped” (artistic renditions he later endorsed look very similar to the Horten brothers’ aircraft). Interviewed by the press soon afterward, he explained that the objects “flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across water.” Though never uttering the phrase “flying saucers,” newspapers throughout the world rapidly adopted the term, and a Gallup poll published a few weeks after Arnold’s encounter revealed that nine out of ten Americans were already familiar with the term. Within months, then, the expressions “flying saucer” and “flying disk” had become not only ubiquitous, but synonymous with sightings of unusual aircraft.

Kenneth Arnold with a artist's rendition of what he saw. From: http://thepandorasociety.com/june-24th-1947-flying-saucers-over-washington/

Kenneth Arnold with an artist’s rendition of what he saw. From: http://thepandorasociety.com/june-24th-1947-flying-saucers-over-washington/

So the moniker “flying saucer” was the invention of journalists – albeit based on the description of a witness – and circulated rapidly within the media as as economical term that neatly fit the limits of a headline banner. This does not mean, of course, that witnesses have in fact not seen disk-like objects in the skies. It does mean, however, that widespread exposure of the world public to the repeated use of the term and image of “flying saucers” provided what sociologists refer to as a “frame” for everyone after Kenneth Arnold. According to sociologists (1) frames serve three major functions:
• they put brackets around phenomena, making them less messy, less open to a multitude of interpretations
• they tie together various elements of experiences into a more unified and coherent story than would otherwise be the case
• and thus, they rearrange and transform the ways in which objects or experiences are understood in relation to individuals.
“Flying saucer” therefore was not just simply a convenient term without any wider social significance. It also carried with it a number of other associations – for example, UFOs = an uncanny experience, must be the product of advanced technology, raise the possibility of alien visitation. And so it’s not just that a term was circulating in the press and in personal conversations, but that a set of emotions, ideas, and stories were also being encouraged along the way.

Notes

1. Snow, David A. “Frame.” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Blackwell Reference Online. 23 August 2015 http://www.blackwellreference.com/subscriber/tocnode.html?id=g9781405124331_chunk_g978140512433112_ss1-64