Journalists should be PATIENT in sifting through Alleged Problems in Reporting on Aircraft Accidents

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ARTICLE: Coverage guide for aviation safety

071013

This is a very useful article by a reporter for reporters who may be assigned to cover an aviation accident. It provides useful links to sites where aviation lingo, air traffic controller jargon, FAA enforcement data and a wide variety of other useful information can be found.

This veteran journalist failed to mention the #1 rule for aircraft disaster writing: Be wary of early fault finding! Here is a short list of articles on the Asiana 214 in which theories have already been propounded:

It is days after the crash and already the number of theories from pundits are growing.

Careful review of modern airline crashes shows that rarely a single factor caused the accident. The airplane design includes redundant systems which are intended to avert problems – warning signals, stick shakers, etc. The instruments themselves are calibrated to warn the cockpit crew of a condition BEFORE it crosses a dangerous line. There are two pilots on board for a reason; the pilot-in-charge and the second-in-command are both actively involved in flying the machine and monitoring all of the cockpit instruments.

Thus, it is HIGHLY unlikely to find a single error to be the cause of an accident. The NTSB findings of probable cause almost always track a series of problems, sometimes totally unrelated to the precipitous cause, which resulted in the crash. One pilot will, for example, find an anomaly in some instrument and both crew members will focus on that issue. While they are concentrating on that instrument, some other condition will emerge and the pilots will not address this second potential problem while dealing with the first. When they finally receive this second alert, their delayed response will cause an overreaction.

Viewed after the fact, the last (second or third or fourth) event in this causative chain will draw the immediate attention. These former pilots and aviation safety advocates are frequently seen on TV or quoted in articles hypothesizing WHY it happened. That attention all too often compels the NTSB to devote inordinate resources in its investigation.

TWA 800, recently revisited, is a prime example of this immediate false cause attribution phenomena. Many eyewitnesses stated categorically that a missile hit the airplane. The media gave great credence to their observations and public concern was overwrought by this “cause.” The NTSB devoted considerable resources to addressing this theory, which was shown to be incorrect.

The journalism class on reporting on aviation accidents should emphasize PATIENCE. Being first, the primary goal of our 24/7 media business, is not a good rubric for providing accurate information to the public about these high profile news events. Pulling the trigger prematurely does a disservice to aviation safety. Allowing the facts to evolve and permitting the experts to sift through the massive data available are better standards for reporters. It may improve ratings to report that a navigational aid was not functioning during the Asiana 214 flight, but to highlight that “fact” early may divert investigative resources from their jobs. A better approach might be to list the range of possible problems and make it clear that all are being thoroughly vetted. PATIENCE is really a good journalistic principle.

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