Nov 30 2012

Another Journalism Fail on the Denver Bug-UFO

A couple weeks ago I wrote about a local Denver news report about “mysterious UFOs” caught on video. The news report includes several videos of blurry dark objects zipping past the camera and actually tried to make this into something interesting any mysterious. The report is an excellent example of a journalism failure when dealing with such topics.

In the age of the internet, such local news stories can now go internationally viral, which is apparently what happened here. This is a double-edged sword for the local news teams – they seem to revel in the widespread attention their local fluff news stories garner, but also seem a bit stung by the criticism it equally attracts.

Now, the news station, Fox 31 WKDVR in Denver, and the reporter, Heidi Hemmat, have decided to double-down on their original journalism failure, apparently concluding that negative attention is a good thing. Their follow up report is entitled: Insect expert: UFOs over Denver not bugs; images on video remain a mystery. Wrong and wrong. What they have offered us is another example of how journalists fail to properly cover controversial science stories.

Most of the videos in question clearly show some sort on insect close to the camera. A few of the videos show what is probably a bird flying by. Some have argued that there are also videos showing what might be a radio controlled plane – there is one quick shot of a video which might show this, but it’s not clear. What is clear is that the majority of the videos are bugs and birds (mostly bugs).

There are several good reasons for this conclusion. First – just look at the videos. They look like bugs. They move like bugs. They simply have the “jizz” of bugs (to borrow a birding term) – so much so that this is a reasonable default explanation and the burden lies with anyone offering a different hypothesis to make their case (they haven’t). Second, the anonymous person who captured the video says that these objects are most active between noon and 1 pm, which just happens to be the time when bees and some other insects are most active (admittedly not all). Further, people visiting the site report that it’s loaded with flying insects. They’re all over the place.

Despite this Hemmat insists in the first report that they are not bugs. She offers as the only reason for her insistence that the airline expert they found for the segment said they were not bugs.

This leads us to one core failure of the original report, duplicated in the second – over reliance on single “experts” even when their expertise does not necessarily include the question that is being asked of them. Actually, I think the real failure is in the way such segments are created. My experience has been that often the segments are essentially written first, and then experts are consulted to mine for quotes that can be plugged into the already written story. Even when this is not consciously the process, the process of looking for an expert to speak on camera may be biased toward those who are going to say what the journalist wants – in this case that the dark fuzzy objects are mysterious.

Further, there is no reason to conclude that their aviation expert has any relevant expertise to identifying insects on camera. It seems that Hemmat tried to solve this problem in the follow up report by getting a bug expert – an entomologist. They showed the videos to Mary Ann Hamilton, who concluded that:

“This is a toughie. I’ve never seen anything like this. After watching the various shots, I do not believe it’s an insect. The shape is inconsistent with an insect.”

I should point out that being an entomologist does not necessarily make one an expert at identifying insects when they are blurry, out of focus, and zipping past a camera lens. She also seemed unsure of herself on the video. But it’s worse than that. Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy (who lives in Denver) spoke with Hamilton and reports that she was told the objects were large and far away, a premise that she accepted. Further, the images were too blurry for her to identify any insect parts, and that is what she meant. She cannot conclude that they are not insects.

The journalism failure here is two-fold. Hemmat appears to have misused her expert, giving her false information and not being clear about the question that was being asked. She also did not put her response into a clear context. It seems to me that she got the response she was hoping for, and didn’t question it further. Second – she made the classic journalist mistake of relying upon a single expert, as if any expert’s opinion is definitive. Whether or not the dark blobs are insects is the core question here. Getting the opinion of a few entomologists would have been a good use of time.

Further, this is yet another case of an expert not necessarily having the proper expertise. Hamilton may known bugs, but that does not mean she understands anything about video, perspective, and how to evaluate video anomalies.

I do have to also criticize Hamilton for failing to properly interface with the media. Scientists have to take some measure of the blame when this sort of thing happens, and Hamilton appeared unprepared. She did not get the context of what she was being asked, and handed the journalist an ambiguous answer that could be easily misused to foster a fake mystery. In short, Hamilton may be a fine entomologist, but she does not appear to be skeptically savvy or media savvy.

Finally, the ultimate journalism failure here is the complete reliance on experts rather than doing any meaningful investigation themselves. Sometimes journalists have no choice – they can’t do primary investigation themselves so they have to rely upon scientists who do the actual research. As I stated above, it’s critical to know how to properly use experts (obviously not the case here). But sometimes a question is amenable to primary investigation, and this is definitely one of those cases.

After the initial story there was much discussion, discussion which Hemmat obviously paid close attention to,  about what kind of information would settle the question definitively. Multiple blogs, including this one, pointed out two easy methods for determining the distance of the dark objects (and hence their size and speed). One is to use two cameras to triangulate their distance. Another is to place a large white sheet about 20 ft or so from the camera, providing a foreground object for reference. If the dark objects move in front of the sheet, then obviously they are closer to the camera than the sheet and are likely bugs.

In fact Phil suggested the two-camera solution to Hemmat, who states on the second segment that this was suggested to her. Yet, neither of these methods were used to investigate the claims.

It’s possible they are just trying to squeeze a third segment out of this story, which has obviously been very popular and is getting a lot of attention to this small station. It’s also possible (probable, in my opinion) that Hemmat simply does not understand the nature of critical thinking and scientific investigation. Talking to one expert who clearly seemed out of her depth was not an investigation. Set up two cameras, hang a sheet, get some actual meaningful data – it’s the kind of thing anyone with two cameras or a camera and a sheet can do.

At its core Hammat’s journalism failure here is a failure of basic understanding of science. Journalists often behave such that if they can get a single expert to say something, then it’s reliable and they are covered. Experts can disagree, however, and it’s important to get the range of scientific opinion in an attempt to find the consensus, or to illustrate a true controversy. The flip side to this (not relevant to this story) is that journalists also will often cover a science story with false balance – get one expert on each side and pretend as if they are equivalent, even when one side represents a tiny fringe opinion and the expert promoting that fringe side is a crank. Journalists also may misuse experts by asking them the wrong kind of questions, or assuming their expertise covers areas that it doesn’t. Neither aviation experts nor entomologists necessarily have any expertise at identifying anomalies on video.

Finally, this story represents a misunderstanding of how science works. A critically thinking scientist would ask – what kind of observation, information, or experiment would reliably argue for or against any hypothesis for what the dark blobs are? A simple experiment would easily resolve this case. Just setting up a single camera and recording more blobs will not. Consulting tangential experts will not. Hopefully some local skeptic will do the experiment the journalists failed to do.

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