The high cost of pointless reporting

On Sunday, July 7, an Asiana Airlines flight from Seoul crashed on the runway at San Francisco International Airport. The airplane impacted just short of the threshold, causing substantial damage to the airframe. The tail departed the fuselage before the airplane came to rest. A fire ensued.

These are facts. I point this out because since the crash occurred the news has been filled with hours of programming and a staggering number of column inches of print that focus on the accident. Much of what has been reported is supposition, theory, guesswork, and personal opinion. That’s unacceptable.

There are very few known facts to work with in the early stages of a crash investigation. Yet that has not stopped the news agencies from issuing pointless updates at a frantic pace in an effort to attract readers and viewers.

I suspect they would prefer you didn’t notice they have little, if any, understanding of the information they are sharing.

I will suggest the opposite. It would be best if you do recognize that the news is primarily filled with random facts, observations, opinions, or misinformation that has almost no relevance to you or the lives of your friends and family. It is drivel that spews forth from a machine that is loathe to stop and consider the damage it is doing — because we insist on being fed more blather daily, hourly, right now! We need to know, darn it.

For those of us who are interested in high quality information, this matters. As suggested by the old adage from the computer industry, “garbage in – garbage out,” misinformation only clouds the issue. Any issue.

Our constant clamoring for more information delivered more quickly does not lend itself to the production or distribution of worthwhile information. Rather, it incentivizes the reporting of rumors. It turns reporters into editorialists — all too often, ill informed and misguided editorialists. But that’s what we insist on, so that’s what we get.

I am particularly biased on this topic. And because I care, I’ll tell you why.

Pan Am Flight 103 was a Boeing 747 out of Frankfurt which made a stop in London with New York as its final destination. On Dec. 21, 1988, Flight 103 fell out of the sky and landed in pieces over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. It was my 30th birthday.

My dad was a Pan Am 747 captain then, and he was out on a flight that night. I spent the evening at my parent’s house, with my 5-year-old son and my mother. Unable to do anything substantive to help anyone, I chose to be near my mother so she wouldn’t be alone. She did what wives do in those circumstances. She tried to locate her husband so she’d know if she was a widow or not.

My dad wasn’t scheduled to be flying 103, but airlines make changes from time to time and so the folks back home can never be entirely sure where their flight crew member might be. Back in the pre-Internet, pre-cell phone days, it wasn’t all that unusual to be in the dark for a while. My mother worked the phone lines that night. Ed, a family friend, had flown the route the night before. He was home, safe. She whittled down the list of friends and acquaintances, assuring herself they were safe, until she found out who wasn’t.

It was a difficult night.

I distinctly recall Dan Rather on television blabbering away about the number of cycles on the aircraft. It didn’t take long to recognize that Dan had no idea what a cycle was, or how the total number might be pertinent to the inflight breakup of an airliner, but he persisted in repeating numbers without context, no doubt stalling until someone fed him some new piece of pointless information to spew out over the airwaves.

If that was an isolated event, that would be the end of it. But it wasn’t. When Air France 4590 crashed, Katie Couric announced with some confidence she believed there to be something wrong with the engines, suggesting they were the cause of the accident. What she based that theory on will forever be a mystery to me. But she said it, and no doubt some viewers believed her.

When an airplane and helicopter collided over the Hudson River in New York City in 2009, David Gregory of NBC News had no compunction about referring to what he termed unregulated travel in the air in that particular corridor. As any pilot who has flown the route knows, the Hudson River VFR corridor is very much a regulated airspace.

As aviation enthusiasts, hobbyists, and professionals, our message is not ours alone to deliver. We have help. Lots of help. Unfortunately, many of those who are crafting our message are ignorant of actual facts and apparently disinterested in correcting the condition in themselves or others. We suffer from a misinformation campaign that is persistent and persuasive.

Yes, an airplane crashed in San Francisco. There were injuries and there was loss of life. It was a tragic accident. But before we point fingers, before we imply wrongdoing, or negligence, or malice, let us remember to pause, consider the facts, and limit our reporting to what we actually know to be true.

Admittedly, that would be a new and different approach for much of the news industry. Still, I think it’s worth considering. In fact, I think it’s worth establishing as the standard the industry aspires to.


  1. Kimberly Bush says

    I attended a WINGS event yesterday. The presenters included an FAA tower employee (and their current focus is how to best explain NextGen), an FSDO employee (and their current focus is the same as their only focus: let’s be safe out there), a maintenance man (and he was mostly telling us that DIY without supervision can have ramifications beyond your worst nightmares) and the local DOT folks who reviewed Part 91 for us (and their focus is PAY ATTENTION. The life [and plane] you save may be your own).
    We are ‘all in this together’, without doubt. Transportation is the most interdependent economy sector.
    I can’t help but recall the “Remember the Maine!” campaign that led to our ‘bully little war’ known as the Spanish-American.
    Leaves me wondering how this is all playing out in the Korean media.

  2. says

    Ironically enough, a news report out of San Francisco that supports the main thrust of this column was released to the Internet this week. How a professional news department missed these joke names and actually reported the pilots of the Asiana flight that crashed in San Francisco were actually, Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk, and Bang Ding Ow is a mystery, unless of course they really are just reporting whatever crosses their desk without making any effort at verification.

    See the clip here:

  3. Shawn says

    What has to be remembered is that the networks do not get paid for reporting the news, they get paid for selling advertising. Used to be that the networks wrote off profits during the news hour. Now they expect that time to be profitable and it shows in the sensationalism.

  4. Kimberly Bush says

    While I can truly appreciate what you are saying (and say the same myself on a regular basis), I have to wonder what value is accrued from preaching to the choir. I am sure that many of your readers are familiar with the old saw “whenever you are pointing one finger at someone, three are pointing back at you”. What has aviation recently accomplished in the way of self-promotion?
    I can’t expect that the Chicago Tribune is going to give you a regular column space, anyone who is reading this column is also free to express the same or a similar sentiment in a letter to the editor or to their local media source. (Turns out they have e-mail addresses and websites and other random communications of a similar nature)
    Be prepared to tell a story about WHY you think anything to do with aviation is important to the general populace. Here are some ideas that will NOT work:
    “We are an elite group of people who had to be willing to work VERY hard to get where we are” (Pilots are less than 2% of the US population)
    “Airborn=magic” (which sometimes doesn’t work out so well for everyone involved)
    “Comercial pilots are ‘of good moral fiber’ as prescribed by FAR’s” (except for those who advise FA’s to pack stiletto heels for their next trip together at work)
    “Pilots understand about rules” (and how they don’t usually apply because we are pilots and that makes us special. We love short busses.)

    Now here is an idea for something that seldom seems to occur to those in aviation:

  5. Carlilly says

    A number of years ago, I stopped watching broadcast news completely. Since giving up on the Lying Liars and the Lies they love to Lie about, I have been better informed and far less angry. Try it, it is liberating. Now, how do we drain the DC Swamp?

    • Kimberly Bush says

      I tried that ‘no news’ approach. Didn’t work for me. If you don’t know what the lies are, there is no way to counter them with the truth. NTSB using false names is today’s headline. What was the point of THAT?

  6. says

    With all the landing systems out of service, one might think that the TOWER would be a bit more vigilent watching arrivals. If they did, they might have noticed th Asiana approach was a bit low LONG BEFORE the situation was out of hand. I know its not a tower staff requirement due to workload be after all, HOW COME THERE ARE TOWERS AT MAJOR AIRPORTS WITH A 360 VIEW OF THE AIRPORT. In other words, what is the purpose of a tower? And, most have RADAR TOO! Wasn’t anyone looking at the radar approach of Asiana?

  7. Jimbo says

    Ur right on Jamie. I flew MATS/MAC 65-74 n CAL 69-85. Knew people who crashed n lived n died. The News Media usually has NO knowledgeable anchors. Their r some exceptions in LA, Austin n maybe more. But as a whole most have no idea what they r talking about. I thought the Head of the NTSB did a good job of not being specific even though ALPA disagrees.

  8. Mack says

    Thank You , Jamie!

    Once again you provide excellent reading that so many of us can concur with.

    So many dolts, like Dan Rather, have had unlimited access to our living rooms, severely affecting the intelligence and opinion of our less experienced citizens, leaving our country in shredded tatters!

  9. Curious George says

    What is the guiding principle of all Media (including NPR and any other…)? To make money. Lot$ of money is preferred. How do they do that? They embelli$h on any $tory or ‘factoid’. Media sometimes serve a useful function, but not nearly as often at reporters and others think they do. As long as we realize what really (REALLY) motivates reporters, journalists, and media owners {money, More money, and LOTS of MONEY} we can watch the boob tube, ready online (and even cellulose copy) and get a reasonable picture of those things that they report. More important to all of this, is what the Media does not report… which is a lot.

  10. says

    Don’t take what I say here wrong its a tragic event and it deserves respectable coverage. The thing I found disconcerting about the media coverage is the SFO crash was the leading news story, and the train derailment in Quebec was eclipsed by this story. Sure it was in Canada and not the US but the death toll at the time was 4 dead and dozens unaccounted for (I think the death toll is somewhere around 14). It may have been the rarity of commercial aviation mishaps that spur this type of coverage, but it just seems that everyone wants to attack aviation. It almost seemed like the media avoided the train derailment, and a part of me wonders if its a honest human nature that airplane accidents are more curious than train accidents or a more dire indication as to the medias intent.

    • says

      Not sure the media is that ‘anti-aviation’; they did the same thing five months ago, when the meteorite struck Russia. The massive fertilizer plant explosion in Texas was a big story, yet it was almost completely ignored. Our media has become very selective, and supremely lazy.

  11. says

    In my opinion we cannot rely on ANYTHING being truthful or factual coming from today’s
    “news”. It isn’t about accuracy or truth, it’s about sensationalism. There are many things that I don’t know much about, but aviation is one area where I do know a little something and I cannot recall a single story relating to aviation that any news organization has gotten right. So if I KNOW they cannot accurately report aviation stories correctly, how am I to believe the reporting on those subjects that I am unfamilar??

  12. RayLRiv says

    I’ll never forget during the JFK Jr accident how several major news outlets (like CBS News) initially referred to his aircraft as a “Piper Cessna.”

  13. Ron Schmidt says

    Wonderful article. I agree with what you stated. I would like to add one more piece of information about reporters. When a plane crashes, the first thing the reporters print is a picture of an airline, even though the crash was in reality a twin engine aircraft. This to me is very disturbing as it immediately send the wrong information and sends your mind wondering about the many families that were affected until you read the article and find out it was NOT and airline.

    • Drew Steketee says

      There’s been a little improvement re: media photos in recent years, thanks to AOPA. In a project I wanted to do but was done after I left, AOPA created a database of GA aircraft facts, specifications and photos for media use. Today, the media need only go to this AOPA online service to retrieve data and representative photos for numerous GA aircraft types. I expect this service is marketed to the media by AOPA and is relatively well used. Other organizations may offer similar resources to the media. It’s important to help the media get the story right… or at least close to reality.

  14. says

    Good analysis Jamie. It is all true. We do tend to offer opinion. No one knows for certain what happened in that cockpit during the approach. But, we can sure see the result of what appears to be a botched approach and that does form an opinion. The difference is that the news media report opinion as fact, we at least try to let our listeners know it is an opinion.

  15. Michael Dean says

    You are so right-on, Mr. Beckett. The television – and to a lesser extent, print – media are little more than entertainment outlets. Who pride themselves as news and information stations. Unfortunately their news is often slanted. And their information is seldom factual. Sadly they don’t care. It feeds the sheep. And, therefore, they feel good about their “contribution” to society.

  16. unclelar says

    So what else is new? Most everyone knows that the press is biased and ignorant of most of the subjects they report on. Jamie, we are not stupid or ignorant. We know all of this. You might as well lobby for world peace, the end of huger and hate around the world as to try to influence what the press does.

  17. Stephen Kallis, Jr. says

    “Garbang In, Garbage Out” isn’t what’s scary. What is: “Garbagr in, Gospel Out.” A lot of reporting may be done without checking with those with specialized knowledge.

  18. says


    You and your readers should clearly understand that the mass media is not in the business of providing information or enlightening people. If that were the case we would have adopted thorium nuclear power generating technology decades ago. The media’s sole purpose in life is to sell print space and air time and to act as a propaganda organ for the benefit of those who seek to influence public opinion. Do not pay any attention to toxic ‘news.’

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