How Are Journalists Covering Astrology? A View On The Ophiuchus Debacle


To summarize:  In early 2011, a handful of new outlets reported that the constellations had shifted from when the zodiac was first derived 3,000 years ago and so everyone’s sign was “off” by about a month.  Additionally, they reported the story that there now are 13 astrological signs, not 12.  The implication was that the astrological sign you were born under may not be the sign you’ve always been told it was.  Astrologers and journalists reported back that they knew this all along.  According to these folks, people’s signs had not changed, and Ophiuchus was not a new sign.  Yes, the constellations have changed and Ophiuchus is a constellation that the sun passes through but, in short, nothing about astrology and the zodiac had changed.

What I want to explore in this post is how well journalists and astrologers explained the significance of the issue.  Did they help raise the profile of astrology and astrologers?  Or, did the coverage end up detracting from astrology?

It turns out that most journalists, rightly so, took their cues from everyday folks.  The predominant storyline, most prominently told in blog comments and youtube videos, was:  “I’m having an astrological identity crisis.”  And journalists were there to cover that story.  There was an enormous amount of humor but also anger and angst that permeated social media; I particularly like the complaints of Outback Zack, Georgia, and Miss Dills, all of whom refused to give up their sign, and then there is the irate, young woman on Ally Dreams Tea who calls the whole issue a conspiracy theory drummed up to help astrologers make money.

All these strong emotions and opinions stem from the fact that most people feel closely identified with their zodiac sign.  Sara Pagones from the New Orleans Times-Picayune registered her surprise at the level of outpouring, although she was a little disheartened that few people were concerned about their actual horoscope and rather, were intent on holding onto to this closely-held part of their identity:

The outpouring of angst surprised me, although I wasn’t happy about what I considered a demotion, from airy Gemini to plodding Taurus.  I had thought astrology was a relic of my own youth, like lava lamps and mood rings, and not something people paid much heed in this post-Aquarian age.  But clearly people are very attached to their sun sign—they consider it a part of their identity, like their hometown, their fan allegiance or even their ethnic background.  They don’t want the cosmos to yank their self-concept out from under them.  Their reactions didn’t focus on astrology as a way to navigate through life.  No one was bemoaning decisions based on a daily reading that now seemed less valid.

Joanna Weiss from The Boston Globe agreed, basically inferring that people were too lazy to understand the debate and relieved to discover that nothing had changed:

Astrologers are fighting back with counter-PR, saying they knew about this moon-pulling business all along.  They say it’s irrelevant, because Westerners follow the “tropical zodiac,” as opposed to the “sidereal zodiac,” and something about the constellations and the vernal equinox.  We “rational” astrology followers can’t be bothered with the details; it’s not like we really believe in this stuff, except for when we do, and at any rate, it’s Greek to us.  Still, the swift debunking came as a relief.

First, the positives.  There were many journalists that really were quite balanced, taking up the technical and scientific issues in hundreds of articles and stories that covered unsexy topics like precession and the historical origin of the zodiac.  They seemed to get the idea that there are two different zodiacs, even if they did not entirely understand why both of them “work.”  Reporters also seemed sympathetic to the astrologers’ viewpoint that they were trying to be discredited.  Although some of the angst was not helpful, astrologers were given ample space to remind their audience that this was not “news” and that astronomy only had emerged over the centuries from astrologers’ insights.  As one astrologer said, “This is an attempt to show ignorance on the part of the astrologers.”  Astrologer Maxine Taylor on CNN shrugs it off, saying that there are actually two zodiacs and that this is a straw-man argument meant to debunk astrology.  The reporter seems to accept this position.  One for astrology!

However, there is a lot of horrible coverage as well, like on CBS News and Fox News, both of which suffer by not having any direct feedback from professional astrologers.  This is quite different from the more serious and engaging coverage, like Sally Nurney’s article in the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colorado) or Robert McCartney’s piece in the Washington Post that was syndicated nationally.  McCartney actually took the time to speak to a number of professional astrologers.  In response, though, he claims to have received very confusing information about the relationship between the constellations, the zodiac, and horoscopes:

[According to astrologers], the signs have nothing to do with the constellations of the same names.  Instead, the signs measure the change in the seasons, starting with the first day of spring.  They say it’s just a regrettable, confusing anomaly that our signs are still named for constellations that no longer are astronomically connected to our birth dates.

When questioned, however, the astrologers were unable to explain satisfactorily why something as seemingly vital as the location of the constellations in the sky has nothing to do with fortune telling based on the heavens.

She [Susan Miller] turned vague and changed the subject when I pressed her to say why a Scorpio born in one year would supposedly have traits similar to those of one born two decades later—given that the planets would have moved to completely different places by then.  “We haven’t figured out why it works,” Miller said.

Susan Miller is probably faring, in part, from some bad editing!  In one CNN interview she rightly suggests that Ophiuchus and precession are not new concepts, and that there is consensus in the astrological community that the zodiac that the Babylonians discovered and that has been perfected since that time is the one that works.  (But isn’t the implication, then, that sidereal astrology or that practiced by Indian astrologers “just doesn’t work”?)  She makes a similar case on Good Morning America.

Unfortunately, Susan Miller does not come off as well during a CNN story that should provide her ample opportunity to talk affirmatively about the benefits of Western astrology.

At two intervals, she says “I could get technical” and then proceeds to do exactly that!  She also says that planets give people their personalities, not signs, and other things that I find unhelpful and confusing.  Unfortunately, she is not helped along by the interviewer who also doesn’t seem to understand any of the explanations, and keeps asking over and over again to cut-to-the chase:  Has her sign changed?  I guess that’s all we really wanted to know.

In the end, I think that journalists did a pretty admirable job in their coverage although they bordered on schmaltzy at times.  It seems to me that astrologers should use media moments like this one to more forcefully demonstrate a solid vision about how astrology works and not get into all the details of the “back story” about the various techniques.  It’s not a debate and media is a huge opportunity to be persuaded that astrologers have a reliable method that they can deploy.  Remember folks, telling people more “facts” never helped anyone win an argument.

25% of Americans Believe in Astrology

Public Opinion AstrologyIt is rare that I run into someone who doesn’t read his or her horoscope, or at least give a passing glance to it.  It may be the company that I am keeping these days, but the statistics say otherwise.  It’s actually a fact that millions of Americans regularly consult astrology for insights about their lives.  One compelling thing that happened during the big story of 2011 about Ophiuchus going viral is that it reminded me that millions of Americans actually “believe” in astrology and read their horoscopes.  Astrology does have a lot of currency with a hell of a lot of folks.

There is a recent article that I recommend which summarizes American’s views on astrology and other cosmic topics, Eric Weiner’s December 2011 story in the Los Angeles Times.  As the piece points out, the major public polling organizations like the Pew Research Center and Gallup have been asking about people’s beliefs in astrology for decades, so we actually know a bit about people’s opinions in this area.  They have been asking:

Do you believe in astrology, or that the positions of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives?

In 2012, Pew sampled more than 3,000 people by phone, and 30% of Americans agreed with this statement.  In 2009, 25% agreed.  That represents millions of Americans, and these numbers have been verified by polling from other outlets. 

The Gallup Poll, for example, has been asking a similar question since 1975 with the following results:  25% (2005); 28% (2001); 25% (1996); 23% (1994); 25% (1990); 31% (1978); and 25% (1975).  When Fox News asked this same question in 2005, 37% of people said they believe in astrology; a 2003 study by Fox News put this number at 29%.  There are a few outliers like a 1998 ABC/Washington Post Poll where 16% believe in astrology, but for the most part the numbers hover in the 25-30% spectrum.  For more than 35 years, more than 25% of Americans have said that they believe in astrology.

The 2009 Pew study is interesting for a number of reasons, that I will summarize here.  You might wonder—who are these 25% of people who believe in astrology?  What is their profile?  To begin, the Pew study tells us that they skew younger; in fact, the younger a person is, they more likely they are to believe; 18-24 year-olds believe (32%) and 65+ believe to a much lesser degree (18%).  They also tend to be less formally educated; in fact, the more formal education people have the less they tend to be believers.  Likewise, they tend to be more liberal (30%) than conservative (18%) and to be poorer (32% of those making under $30,000 a year) than wealthier (16% of those making over $75,000 per year).  Democrats outnumbered Republicans 2 to 1.  There were more believers on the West Coast (29%) versus the South (22%), but there was not huge variation in the four major regions of the country.

There were a couple of surprises for me, though.  My own suspicion was that the percentage of women who suscribe to astrology would be much higher than men, but it is only modestly so; 28% of women versus 21% of men.   A more startling fact was that while 22% of believers were self-identified as Caucasian/White, 29% of African-Americans and 35% of Hispanics claimed to be so.

I am fortunate that I work with a number of very talented public opinion researchers, which has given me some modest insight about how all this works.  They also have given me so cues on how to identify some of the best research over the last twenty or so years on this topic, which is admittedly scarce.  Generally you analyze public opinion not only to get a snapshot about the beliefs of a particular group, but also to change or modify it.  From my vantage point, if I were a member of the astrological establishment, I would be using this sizeable audience to identify key opinion leaders and influencers who could help expand the universe of folks that give additional credibility to this art.

Although 25% of Americans believe in astrology, more than 50% regularly read their horoscope or a personal astrology report (2010 General Social Survey) either occasionally or regularly.  So more than half of Americans are aware of astrology, even if less pay active attention to it.  And only 5% actually said that “horoscopes or astrology helped you make decisions about your life” (1988 CBS News/New York Times Poll), so far fewer are either able to make sense of their horoscopes or know how to practically activate themselves around it.

All of this opinion research though still begs the question about what people actually believe in.  Truthfully, I am not sure what these folks think astrology actually is, and I can’t tell you how many folks ask if being psychic and intuitive is the same thing.  These are good questions.  So there is a lot of room to actually influence and shift people’s thinking on this topic.