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.