In response to my review yesterday of National Geographic Channel's Chasing UFOs, the program's resident skeptic Ben McGee tweeted me to share a blog post about the detailed science that he and the Chasing UFOs team did in support of the UFO investigation featured in the premiere episode, very little of which actually made it to air.
This is probably a good place to note that I don't blame McGee or any of the other UFO hunters on Chasing UFOs for what I saw as a lightweight, slipshod, and boring program. Blame for that rests solely on the producers, who are in charge of crafting the final product.
I know whereof I speak. My degree in journalism was specifically broadcast journalism, and I have studied broadcasting and tried my hand at producing broadcast material. It isn't easy, and nonfiction television is as much art as it is straightforward reportage. Producers have enormous leeway to affect the audience's perceptions of a story with the subtlest of nonverbal hints. Take a look at these stills from the pilot episode of Ancient Aliens. They followed each other in succession and through color choice (blood or devil red) gave the clear, but silent, impression that I am evil. That may well be true, but it isn't very nice to have one's whole family see on national television.
While the Chasing UFOs cast may well have conducted extensive research and analysis into the UFO sightings they investigated, the producers chose to craft a narrative that was light on science and research and heavy on anecdotal testimony and "adventure" (read: night vision stakeouts). This is not the fault of the cast, but it is a failing of the show.
There is a distinction between what occurs in the real world and what we see abstracted from the world for presentation of TV. Unfortunately, as viewers we can only judge what we see on our screens. The viewer can't be expected to research a program online to discover all the parts the producers chose to leave out, and it is the responsibility of the producer to present all of the information the producer feels the viewer needs to judge the situation fairly. I have a strange feeling that the producers of Chasing UFOs really feel like they did that, despite the program's obvious failing to present on screen even cursory research into the long-debunked sighting they re-investigated.
At the more theoretical level, it comes down to the level of advocacy one expects from a program. Should producers manipulate guest selection, story choices, and artistic choices to favor one point of view on a controversial subject? It would seem unfair to condemn Ancient Aliens for peddling one-sided discussion while praising the Nova/Horizon special that delivered a devastating attack on the ancient astronaut theory in the 1970s. The difference is that good quality nonfiction programs give a fair chance for advocates of multiple points of view to make their case before drawing conclusions, while bad programs edit, manipulate, or lie to stack the deck against fairness. One can be fair and still reach a conclusion. When one does so, even those who disagree with the conclusion can understand the other point of view and why the documentary-makers rejected it.
But on Chasing UFOs there wasn't enough information to get to that point. It wasn't "fair" so much as "balanced," with equal time for skeptics and believers, edited down to meaningless info-babble, leaving the final impression to come from the largely nonverbal artistic choices in the storytelling, thus favoring the believer over the skeptic subtly but noticeably.
Oh, by the way: Did you know that National Geographic Channel is owned by the parent of Fox News?
(And yes, that is an artistic choice designed to subtly influence the audience through insinuation while actually stating nothing solid. I learn from the best, TV producers!)
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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