The below article from The Guardian is actually a very interesting dialogue between Yvonne Roberts (a well-respected journalist, novelist, broadcaster and chief leader writer at The Observer) and Charlie Beckett,( journalist, London School of Economics media professor, Polis think tank director) about the reporting of the tragedy of the Germanwings Flight 9525.
Their insightful commentary draws on their extensive knowledge of the responsibilities of professional journalism. They both abhor the 24 hour news cycle, the internet insistence of instant news (rather than on requiring that it be right) and the impact of non-traditional “information sources”. Their focus is on their craft, not on the special aspects of reporting on aviation accidents.
In the United States, we, the people, hold the First Amendment as one of the most important elements of our Bill of Rights. In the relevant language, it states:
“Congress shall make no law… abridging the Freedom of Speech, or of the press.”
The courts have broadly interpreted that right. Good journalism relies on this special status, but also holds itself to a high level of integrity and accuracy in light of the responsibility inherent in this first amendment to the Constitution.
This exercise of care in reporting is even more important in the context of the Germanwings tragedy. IFALPA issued a strong statement about premature disclosure of the CVR tapes and other investigation as violation of:
“…internationally agreed principles of accident investigation confidentiality set out in ICAO Annex 13, they are also a breach of trust to all those involved in the investigation and to the families of the victims. Furthermore, leaks of this nature greatly harm flight safety since they invite ill-informed speculation from the media and the general public and discourage co-operation with investigators in future accidents.”
The problem is that talking heads, people with some credentials, are not necessarily experts at accident investigation. To make news, they are inclined to make unsubstantiated hypotheses of what happened. It is easy to speculate, but substantial experience in accident investigations is needed to produce news rather than educated hunches. This observation is reinforced by comments made by Airbus’ Chairman Tom Enders:
“’What we should critically examine is the mischief that some ‘experts’ get up to, especially in TV talk shows,’Enders told the weekly Bild am Sonntag.
‘Sometimes people there speculate, fantasize and lie with no basis in fact,’ he said, describing many of the opinions expressed as ‘outrageous nonsense’ that constituted ‘mockery of the victims.’”
Again from the same article, the chief French investigator, General Jean-Pierre Michel,
“…told French media on Saturday that other hypotheses on the cause of the crash must also be examined.
‘[We] have no right today to rule out other hypotheses, including mechanical hypotheses, as long as we haven’t proved that the plane had no (mechanical) problem,’ he said.”
Those views are expressed by true experts, professionals who know all of the facts and are aware of what the next steps in the investigation are designed to assess as possible causes or even secondary influences.
When listening to/reading one of the media reports, there is a bright line test of credibility– if in early stages after the accident, she or he offers some theory of the crash, the “expert” is probably not an accident investigation professional. All true journalists will confine their initial comments to known facts.
The Germanwings is a perfect example how this hyper news is not likely to be reliable. The Aviation Business Gazette posted a report that FAA recognizes Andreas Guenter Lubitz, intimating that the pilot received some special recognition (“prestigious FAA Airmen Certification Database”). Reading further into the article, it acknowledges that the FAA only issued the standard Airman Certificate after Lubitz graduated from an Arizona Flight School (run by Lufthansa) and passed the FAA required tests. The potency of such misinformation, as ludicrous as it was (any person knowledgeable about aviation), is demonstrated by the acceptance of this story as true by The Drudge Report, the BBC, CNN Fox, Russia Today, and other media outlets.
The real point is that the public’s interest in any aviation accident, there is heavy coverage. Any marginal error in such prominent reports by an “expert” causes widespread, premature and unnecessary concerns by consumers. That public sentiment is frequently influenced by such false targets. That induced pressure can push the investigators to prove that the uninformed suppositions are wrong (i.e. the missile reported to bring down TWA 800 consumed considerable time to disprove that media favored “observation”).
The First Amendment is a Right and a corollary to that Freedom is the responsibility of journalists to exercise due diligence. The 24 hour news cycle and the expansion of news sources through the internet have challenged the profession’s ability to check the facts. The main line reporters are compelled, by ratings, to push out copy quickly.
The reporting of aviation accidents should require even greater attention to details for solid policy reasons. Talking heads, if they have some need to get ahead of the facts, MUST carefully label their statements as speculative opinions.
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