MEDIA RESPONSES TO AVIATION ACCIDENTS AND INCIDENTS WOULD BE BETTER SERVED BY PATIENCE IN REPORTING THE “FACTS”

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ARTICLE: Recent events, news coverage, and aviation safety

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The news media with its 24 hour digestive track likes or demands immediate, short, simple answers when a story, like the American seat row tracks, becomes public. The dimensions of determining the answer to aviation safety issues are rarely readily discernible, much less answerable.

ARSA correctly explained why it was taking time to figure out what happened in the AA case. What they understated a bit is the degree to which pundits, who appear to have the credentials to report on crashes or incidents like the AA situation, actually do harm to the process.

It is now standard media practice for national networks and local stations to trot out a former pilot or former FAA staffer or retired NTSB employee to expound on why this accident happened. These pronouncements are frequently made so soon after the event that the investigating agencies (NTSB, FAA and state/local authorities in the US; even more complex overseas) are still compiling the basic facts. The “talking head” will articulate some explanation of why (s)he thinks the plane crashed. What is not disclosed is that the media expert–

  • has not flown a plane for years, so the technical knowledge basis is dated the and/or
  • is a pilot with rudimentary (at best) comprehension of the mechanical or avionics system at issue, and/or
  • no longer has contact with the agency from which (s)he retired [so the unstated hint that there is some insider knowledge is furthest from the truth], and/or
  • the job previously held was purely administrative with no technical knowledge of any of the disciplines involved.

Ordinarily, the experts are making good faith assessments of what might have been the problem.

Does this speculation help? No, not really. A perfect example is the 1996 TWA 800 crash. “Eyewitnesses” told the media that they saw contrails streaming from the surface up to the aircraft and then saw the B-747 explode. Air Traffic control data demonstrated that no such missile was launched at the plane, but the repeated news reports COMPELLED the NTSB to create a separate team of investigators to disprove this news media false target. People and dollars, that otherwise would have been devoted to the more realistic range of causes, were allocated to this issue and they actually made a long presentation at the NTSB’s hearing on probable cause.

Most aviation professionals, who work on the complex issues that are involved in the safe operation of aircraft, are most reluctant to offer their services to the media at the early frenzy stages. They know that reviews of air crash litigation strongly suggest that the ultimate analysis of what the probable cause for an accident regularly requires years of examination of the facts. Accident investigation is not an intuitive exercise.

The media would be well served to restrain from speculation and to explain that the complexity of the facts rarely allows for quick resolution of the probable cause. There may be little or no splash to such a media message, but if accuracy or long term credibility matters, it’s the right story.

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