WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- With the lines between television news and entertainment blurring, people's beliefs in unidentified flying objects can easily be swayed by what they see on TV, says a Purdue University communication researcher.
"The credibility of the source is important when it comes to how people evaluate the information they hear," says Glenn Sparks, professor of communication. "Our research shows that when uncritical accounts of UFO sightings are aired in the news, belief in UFOs increases among the audience."
Sparks tested the phenomenon by showing study participants two segments from a CBS "48 Hours" program that had been hosted by anchorman Dan Rather. The entire show was on the topic of UFOs and first aired on April 20, 1994. Participants' beliefs in UFOs were measured both before and after viewing the segments.
Half the participants saw a segment with a one-sided story featuring people who allegedly witnessed space aliens being dragged from a flying-saucer crash in New Mexico in 1947. The segment appeared exactly as it was originally broadcast and contained nothing that would discredit the existence of flying saucers.
The rest of the participants were shown a segment that depicted a group "filming an actual UFO." As part of the piece, scientists commented on the film and used computer enhancement to show that the image probably was nothing more than a conventional jet aircraft.
The one-sided segment increased UFO beliefs almost as much as the two-sided segment decreased beliefs in UFOs, Sparks says. The two-sided message group dropped more than 3.5 points on the UFO beliefs measure, while the one-sided group increased their UFO beliefs by nearly 2.5 points. "Statistical analysis revealed that the probability that changes of this magnitude would occur by chance alone is less than 3 in 10,000," he says.
Sparks says the effect of news stories about UFOs is particularly important given the number of people who are uncertain about their beliefs. "Surveys show that one-third to one-half of adults believe in the existence of UFOs," he says. "Another third are uncertain about their existence and are therefore likely to be impacted by information from sources they perceive to be credible.
"Overall, that particular episode of '48 Hours' did present a balanced treatment of UFOs. However, many viewers see only portions of a program, and those segments that are not balanced may be accepted by audience members without any critical scrutiny.
"The burden is on broadcasters of high-credibility programs to present balanced, thorough accounts of the phenomenon being addressed."
The upswing in interest in paranormal events has spawned many television entertainment programs such as "Unsolved Mysteries," "X-Files," and "Sightings." Sparks says the impact of these shows on paranormal beliefs should not be as great as that of respected news shows.
"People expect to believe the information they get from sources like '48 Hours' and Dan Rather. These expectations bias the way they process information while viewing the show and hinder critical scrutiny," Sparks says.
Sparks' study tied for the "Top Paper" award in the research division from the Broadcast Education Association during its annual convention April 4-7 in Las Vegas, Nev.
Source: Glenn Sparks, (765) 494-3316; e-mail, email@example.com
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, email@example.com
NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A copy of the study is available from Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723.