Monday, October 24, 2011

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Media After First Contact

Our understanding of the larger world depends greatly on the media. These days those media sources are numerous and growing. A recently released Pew Research Center study shows that Americans are now blending their news sources among many outlets, including television, online newspapers, web sites, and blogs.
I have advocated that television would be an excellent tool for visiting extraterrestrials in a dramatic Direct First Contact event. I know that sounds a bit “out there” but consider the advantages: Television has global reach, specializes in breaking news and live coverage and has a sharing network among news outlets unrivaled in the world.  Clearly though, the type of coverage a Direct First Contact event received would change in the days and weeks following the initial event. Depending on how the event was to occur, coverage would begin to migrate from live to enterprise journalism. This is a natural cycle in the news business. When wildfires break out in a community, live coverage dominates at first. As the situation is eventually managed, the reporters begin to do enterprise stories focusing on the people impacted and critical pieces, such as determining the cause, the firefighting response and whether the proper precautions were taken to help prevent such fires.   

One could expect that Direct First Contact coverage would move in the same way. The question is how those follow-up enterprise stories would be handled. The big difference between wildfires and extraterrestrials visiting Earth, aside from the scope of the story, is that wildfires are something we understand fairly well. First Contact would create all sorts of uncertainty. The media would need to look for experts and that’s probably a list they don’t have prepared. Hopefully, they would look in the right places and interview the folks from the SETI Institute, the International Astronomical Union or the other astrophysicists who have actively considered First Contact issues. Secondarily, there would be futurists and science fiction writers who have explored First Contact scenarios. Unfortunately though, there is a whole other group of writers who fall into what one might call the UFO community. I know it’s unfair to lump people together, but I think it’s safe to say that in any First Contact situation the UFO community will be extremely vocal. Because of the high degree of uncertainty in First Contact they may suddenly seem more credible to the mainstream media. If aliens do come to Earth to say hello or if we discover an engineered signal far off in space, doesn’t that lend some credibility to alien abduction theorists or those who believe we have been visited by aliens in the past? In all fairness, I think you would have to consider those questions in some fashion- the best way would of course be to ask the aliens themselves. Still, the effect that uncertainty has is to create a vacuum of information and usually people try to fill that vacuum with any information they can find. The UFO conspiracies would receive much more attention from the general public and the news media. The difference is the media, in the many forms it takes these days, has the ability to influence public perception. If they are chasing after every alien conspiracy theory that could have a dramatic impact on how people view extraterrestrials. It could lead to fear and knee-jerk reactions based on fear. I have said it before: I think there will be a vocal minority of isolationists that will be active in any First Contact situation. They will advocate for isolationism and suggest that we tell the aliens to leave us alone. How much steam this movement picks up will depend greatly on the media coverage. If the mainstream media gives such views quite a bit of attention, the number of people advocating isolationism will increase. If the media manages to realize the danger in chasing after every conspiracy theory, calmer heads might prevail.

In the end it comes down to two primary points: critical thinking and credibility. We will need to utilize critical thinking in the wake of First Contact. This includes the news media. Plenty of tough questions will need to be asked. Any information provided to us by extraterrestrials would need to be carefully weighed. However, credibility will be essential. The media will need to realize that crack-pots before First Contact could still very well be crack-pots After First Contact. Just because their subject matter turned out to have some basis in truth (aliens do exist) doesn’t mean that everything else they advocate is true (aliens kidnapped my cousin Earl and he was forced to mate with them).

Is the collective global media up to the task of critical thinking? Well, perhaps some outlets. Others, one would imagine, will go crazy with fear-mongering, headline-grabbing stories just to get attention. It will be up to news consuming public to decide who they will trust. The sensible majority will need to stand up and be counted.

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