Sacred Texts  Esoteric & Occult   Mysteries
Buy CD-ROM   Buy Books about UFOs
Index  Previous  Next 

Handling the News Media: What MUFON Members Need to Know

 Handling the News Media:
 What MUFON Members Need to Know
 by Joe Lewels, Ph.D.
 (Mutual UFO Network UFO Journal, Number 337, May 1996, Copyright 1996 by
 the Mutual UFO Network, 103 Oldtowne Rd., Sequin, Texas 78155, published
 monthly with a membership/subscription rate of $25/yr.)
 Anyone who takes the UFO mystery seriously has, at one time or another,
 been frustrated by the news media's often sophomoric and uninformed
 coverage of the subject. As a former journalist and journalism
 professor, I have often winced with embarrassment at the antics of
 broadcast anchormen who somehow feel obliged to end every UFO story with
 a snide comment or a dumb joke. It is as if by doing so, they can
 distance themselves from the subject matter and demonstrate to the
 audience how objective, credible and professional they are. Such
 comments and raised eyebrows, I have noticed, do not explain to the
 viewers why the TV station chose in the first place to air the story.
 They are left to wonder why, if the story was so ridiculous, they
 bothered to cover it at all.
 The reason, of course, is the ratings. TV stations and newspapers are,
 first and foremost, businesses, and it is this fact that accounts for
 much of their content. Editors and news directors are well aware of the
 public's seemingly unquenchable thirst for UFO information, and even if
 they themselves are ignorant of the subject, they understand one thing
 quite well: UFOs sell newspapers and boost ratings. MUFON members, who
 from time to time may find themselves dealing with the press must be
 constantly aware of this truth, for it can either be the cause of great
 consternation or it can provide much-needed publicity opportunities.
 Three cases of media contact during the last year serve to illustrate
 the problem. Not long ago, the State Section Director in El Paso, Tex.,
 Dr. Roberta Fennig, was contacted by a television reporter who was
 anxious to get an interview for a story. "We're doing a three- part
 series on UFOs and I need to see you right away," he said. He was
 working on a short deadline and asked for a meeting that same day. Dr.
 Fennig contacted me and we agreed to meet with the reporter on the
 condition that the meeting be "off the record." Since we did not know
 the reporter, we felt a need to act cautiously. We needed to know what
 the program would cover and how it would be approached. To determine
 this, we asked a few questions:
 "Why are you interested in doing a series on UFOs?" we asked. "My news
 director assigned me the story," he responded.
 "Is your news director interested in UFOs?"
 "I don't think so."
 "Then why do the story? Has something happened to stir up interest in
 the subject?" we queried.
 "I don't think so."
 "Well, why do a series at this time," we probed. ` “It has to do with
 the ratings," he confessed. "Next week is sweeps week." (The week in
 which audience sizes are measured to determine how much a station can
 charge for advertising is called "sweeps week.")
 "Ok, what do you know about UFOs?"
 "Not much," he replied honestly.
 "Have you read any books on the subject?"
 "Are you aware that your network (CBS) devoted an hour of serious
 discussion to the subject on the `48 Hours' program?" we inquired.
 "Uh, no, I didn't see that."
 "How much air time will your station devote to this three-part series?"
 "Each segment is going to be about 2 to 3 minutes.'
 It quickly became obvious that 1) the reporter was totally ignorant of
 the subject; 2) neither he nor anyone at his station had any serious
 interest in the subject; 3) the only purpose of the report was to hype
 the nightly news to gain higher ratings; and 4) that the station was
 going to rush to throw together something without much research or
 concern for the seriousness of the subject. In the end, we opted not to
 participate, although we realized we were passing up an opportunity to
 bring in new members and to publicize our hotline number. We had good
 reason to be concerned that any comments we might make could be taken
 out of context for the purpose of providing the station with a 20-second
 "sound byte" to be used to hype their evening news show.
 Dr. Fennig, whose experience at dealing with the media is limited, was
 amazed by the lack of professionalism demonstrated by the reporter. "I
 thought he would have at least done a little research on the subject
 before asking for an interview," she commented. This example should
 serve as a lesson for MUFON spokespersons who will find that the job of
 educating reporters is never ending. They cannot assume that journalists
 know anything about the volumes of evidence pertaining to the reality of
 UFOs or that they have even heard the names of persons like Dr. John
 Mack, Budd Hopkins, Dr. J. Allen Hynek or other well-known researchers.
 Walt Andrus, International Director of MUFON, recently received a call
 from a reporter from a newspaper in Pensacola, Florida who wanted an
 interview and information on the Gulf Breeze case. "He knew absolutely
 nothing about the events of Gulf Breeze," says Walt, "even though
 Pensacola is just a few miles across the bay. He didn't even know who Ed
 Walters was. I asked him how long he had worked in Pensacola and he said
 five years. I told him the Gulf Breeze case was at least eight years
 old." On another occasion, a reporter for the El Paso Herald Post
 approached me for help in arranging an interview with an abductee. She
 wanted to do a feature story to accompany the story she was doing on
 John Carpenter's lecture on the abduction phenomenon at the University
 of Texas at E1 Paso. In the past, she had done an excellent job on a
 front page story concerning a lecture by speaker Robert Dean. She had
 even called him long distance for an interview. Since I had confidence
 in her, I assisted her in setting up an interview with a local woman who
 had a lifetime of UFO experiences. The interview resulted in a large,
 front page article which was no doubt responsible for the large crowd
 that attended Carpenter's presentation. It was a fair, in-depth and
 serious effort to convey the terror, trauma and honest confusion
 experienced by an otherwise intelligent, well-adjusted and productive
 The difference between these two cases of media contact serves as a good
 lesson for MUFON members who may not have experience in dealing with the
 Here are a few suggestions about how to handle the media and to get
 better publicity:
 1) Members should be taught to handle unsolicited media contact
    properly. One person in the chapter, preferably the State Section
    Director or another experienced individual, should be designated as
    the spokesperson. All requests for information or interviews should
    be directed to him or her.
 2) The spokesperson should seek out reporters who are interested in and
    knowledgeable about the subject and work with them by being their
    sources of information. Cultivate relationships with those who can be
    trusted to do a fair job.
 3) Media contact is optional and should be on your own terms. You are
    not obligated to speak to a reporter and you should not do so if you
    are uncomfortable with the format or with the individual. Be prepared
    to be badgered for a statement. Reporters know that if they can keep
    you on the phone or engaged in conversation for more than a minute or
    so, chances are you will end up "spilling your guts." Learn to say
    "no comment," or "I can't be a source for you on this story," then
    hang up! Remember that anything you say to a reporter is quotable
    unless you received a pledge of anonymity before you made the
    statement. For that reason, many reporters will attempt to strike up
    a casual conversation, without telling you that you are being
    interviewed. As disagreeable as it may seem, it is in your best
    interest to consider every newsperson as an adversary, for he is
    capable of making you look extremely foolish.
 4) Before saying anything quotable, first find out what the nature of
    the story is and what the reporter's views are. Ask for a face to
    face, off the record meeting to get acquainted. Make it clear what
    comments are "off the record" and which are for attribution. Tape
    record the interview as a safeguard.
 5) Do not assume the reporter knows anything about the subject or has
    done any research. Find out what books he has read and who else he is
    going to interview. Do not assume that the reporter will be
    objective, fair or sympathetic. Remember, reporters use people to get
    a story that will sell newspapers or get ratings. Their own interests
    come first, not telling the truth.
 6) When dealing with TV stations, find out how much air time they plan
    to devote to the story. Realize that even though they interview you
    for 20 minutes, they may only use a 10- or 20- second film clip of
    the most sensational statements you make. It will be totally out of
    context and could make you look foolish.
 7) Learn to exercise caution with your choice of words and think
    carefully before you say anything on the air or for attribution.
    Always opt for the most conservative choice of words and qualify your
    statements. For example, investigators should use the term "UFO" or
    "object" rather than "spaceship." Remember, you can't prove it was a
    spaceship. Use the words, "apparent" or "potential" when describing
    an abduction or alien encounter. Be cautious about stating as fact
    those things that cannot be proven, such as "the government is
    testing flying saucers," or "aliens are from Zeta Reticuli" or "alien
    bodies were recovered at Roswell."
 8) If your meetings are open to the public, it is a good idea to ask if
    there are any reporters or media representatives in the audience. If
    so, you may wish to ask for a promise that the meeting be "off the
    record" or you may wish to ask the person to leave. Having a reporter
    present at a meeting may seriously interfere with a free and open
    discussion of important issues. Members should not have to worry
    about being quoted in the newspaper for statements made at meetings.
 9) If your chapter is planning to have a guest lecturer who doesn't mind
    the publicity, arrange for the lectur to occur during "sweeps week."
    Contact your local stations to find out when that week falls and
    offer to help the news director produce a segment on UFOS, centered
    around your speaker.
 10) For best results, hand-carry well-written news releases to those
     reporters and editors you know will do a good job. If your chapter
     produces a newsletter, send free copies to all the media and to
     favored reporters.

Next: Memorandum II