Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Stalling for News

I continue to be irritated by the media response to airplane crashes. There were a number the week of the fatal I blogged about, and I know the media was contacting pilots unconnected to the events for comments on the "state of flight training" and the "safety of small aircraft." I know they have to do something to sell newspapers, but why is the response so different than when there is a rash of automobile crashes?

When people die on the roads, the media questions the decisions made by the driver: were they drunk, speeding, fatigued, passing unsafely or driving a vehicle with poor maintenance? They look at the conditions: rain, dark, snow or wind. They might question the infrastructure: narrow roads, poor sightlines, a need for a traffic light at that intersection. Occasionally they even question the particular automobile, suggesting the CofG is too high. But I don't remember ever seeing them question the driver training process, or the general safety of humans driving cars in the first place. Have you ever seen a roving reporter ask people at a mall about how safe they feel our automobile transportation systems are?

And I am still irritated, ever single time in ever single story by reporters who can't take the time to learn the difference between an engine failure and a wing stall before writing it down and submitting it.

Dear Mr. or Ms. Reporter, if an investigator or pilot witness tells you that the airplane stalled and you write down that the engine stalled that makes about as much sense as if you reported a break in a window as a brake failure. If you find out anything about an airplane accident and you don't know about airplanes could you at least ask, "does that mean ..?" before printing lies that you made up in your ignorance?

Do reporters get it this wrong about your area of expertise?


viennatech said...

Every day I get complaints of "crashes" but there is never any metal to clean up. Just some ones and zeroes which can be fixed with the Microsoft salute, "CTRL-ALT-DEL"
Luckily the aircraft I fly never heard of a CPU or a motherboard!

datsclark said...

Being a professional in software development (for a finance company) as well as a pilot, I am also irritated daily by how often the media misses the facts on all three of these subject areas. It would seem most reporters study the art of melodramatically writing a story instead of understanding the real fundamentals.

ea757grrl said...

Sadly, this is nothing new; read some of Newsweek's coverage of American 191 and the DC-10 grounding from 1979 if you really want to get depressed, or some of the coverage from the same period of Three Mile Island or Skylab.

News organizations that have reporters who are on specific beats -- a science beat, a space beat, an aviation beat -- fare somewhat better, but few organizations except the largest ones have those any longer.

A really good reporter should be naturally curious enough to want to find out how anything works or functions, because knowing how it works is key to understanding it, and thus to letting the public understand. Unfortunately, that gets lost too often. Part of it is the rush to deadline (though that never excuses not getting it as accurate as you can), and part of it is that people -- reporters and the public -- just aren't as curious as they used to be. (I'm a undergraduate journalism educator, and you don't want to know how current-events quizzes are like pulling teeth some weeks.)

Too often in the news industry, it seems like the emphasis is on how you look and how you sound, or if you reflect "common sense conventional wisdom," or if you're "likeable," rather than if you know what you're talking about. Some of us are really trying to stem the tide (I, too, yell at the television for how TV news treats too many topics in too flip a manner), but it gets tough sometimes.

fche said...

> Do reporters get it this wrong about your area of expertise?

De rigueur.

met24 said...

@ea757grrl: Even the so-called 'experts' often wildly miss the point these days too. Being a Brit I used to have a lot of trust in the BBC, but their specialists are pretty clueless nowadays. And they don't have to sell anything!

And what's worse: they're talking rubbish about things we know and understand. How much of the stuff they're saying about things we don't understand is also rubbish?

JamieB said...

I used to work in Railway Signalling. The ignorance shown by the media was prevalent there also. They didn't seem to understand that whilst railway signals look like road signals, their operation and the safety behind it are worlds apart.

When I read something woefully inaccurate in the press about my area of expertise, it makes me question what I read about the many things I have no knowledge of. Trust the media to report accuratly? Not very often!

Lynn said...

datsclark said...
It would seem most reporters study the art of melodramatically writing a story instead of understanding the real fundamentals.

When I was in Journalism school, one of my instructors, an editor, said that he didn't usually hire J-school graduates, because they had learned all about writing simple declarative sentences and writing pyramid-shaped stories, but they didn't know any thing about the world. He said he preferred libral arts grads.

ea757grrl said...
Too often in the news industry, it seems like the emphasis is on how you look and how you sound, or if you reflect "common sense conventional wisdom," or if you're "likeable," rather than if you know what you're talking about.

The 1987 movie Broadcast News covered the news analyst versus news actor issue very well I thought.

Although I went to J-school at one point, I am actually a programmer, and worked for many years in computer security, and yes, the news almost always gets it wrong in dealing with computer security.

Lynn Grant

Lynn said...

I think my instructor especially liked liberal arts grads who knew how to spell "liberal". Oops!


Anonymous said...

They also get it wrong in SCUBA diving reporting, such as reporting how a diver died because he "ran out of oxygen in his tank." 99.9% of the time divers aren't diving with 100% oxygen, but I've noticed that, scarily enough, most non-technical people don't even realize that air is not the same thing as oxygen.

I think it's a failure of education at the K-12 level--I must have learned about Nitrogen in middle school at the latest. More disturbingly, though, the general population (including the media) lacks an ability to comprehend even the most basic mechanical or scientific principles, which is pretty sad.

Scott Johnson said...

Don't even get me started on journalists. There hasn't been one who bothered learning anything technological since Cronkite and Jules Bergman covered Apollo.

I look back in horror on a local news anchor who, after reporting that the B737 rudder system had been implicated in the crash of USAir 427, suggested that people might want to "avoid flying on airliners with rudders until this is sorted out."

A Squared said...

They also get it wrong in SCUBA diving reporting, such as reporting how a diver died because he "ran out of oxygen in his tank."

Well, strictly speaking, if you run out of air on your tank, you've also run out of oxygen.....I'm just saying.

You're right though, I think vast majority of people (not just journalists) never grasped what they were studying in chemistry, and were merely memorizing some meaningless mumbo-jumbo to be forgotten the day after the final.

The example that gets me is "oxygen fires". You see it all the time, but try explaing to most people that oxygen does not burn.

Astroprof said...

Yep. They screw up every time when they report on physics and astronomy.

I miss the old days when reporters actually tried to learn something about what they were reporting so that they'd get it accurate.

zb said...

Lynn, I completely agree that J-schools are not a good idea. While it is important for writing journalists to know some things about the right use of language and while it is important for radio journalists to understand how their voice sounds through the mike, what mostly happens with J-schools is streamlining. It seems, for example, that in the early days of radio, we had far more interesting personalities and voice characters, because all these folks had started doing radio in a time when there just was no school for radio journalism. If you wanted to do the job, you had to figure out a lot by yourself and sometimes learn your art the hard way, by trial and error. There are of course some things that were always important, like respect for the subject you talk about or respect for your interview partner (even if you strongly disagree with them), and it seems that some of these basic things get less important because other things become considered more and more important, for example being the first one to report about something or 'not losing a listener or reader by making things too complicated'. Trouble is: The world is complex and you can't put everything into a bold-faced headline or into five seconds of talking between two of today's smash hits. And if you want to be the first one to talk about something in the style of breaking news, you often don't have the time to question the type of stall you are talking about.

While this might be an explanation for some media annoyance, it is by no means an excuse: A lot of journalism is really bad and I find my life to be much nicer since I have abandoned the TV from my apartment and get my news mainly from npr-style radio and papers. Let's be honest: How often do we really need to know about news within minutes or hours? Don't we learn more when reading them in the paper, the next morning, after some thoughts have been spent on the topics and the articles have been edited?

The self-experiment of not having a TV has shown me one thing: Whenever I am now at a place where there is a TV and watch some news and advertisements, I feel completely numbed and almost brainwahsed. Similar to not drinking a single drop of alcoholic beverage for a while and then getting almost knocked out by just one beer. With alcoholism, we mainly don't blame the breweries but the individual's drug habit. Maybe we should use more of the same reasoning when it comes to media consumption. And when we decide to get our news, let's get them from personalities and characters we trust.

dpierce said...

why is the response so different than when there is a rash of automobile crashes?

Because car safety isn't a story. Nobody is afraid to ride in a car.

Do reporters get it this wrong about your area of expertise?

Y2K? The hysteria generated over computer viruses and online credit card theft? The gross misunderstanding of neural algorithms, statistics, and environmental modeling creates amazingly dimwitted stories related to weather prediction and climate understanding in general. Nobody in the media understands causality.

The media, more often that not, seems to be a lazy outlet for publishing press releases and scientific studies that cannot be understood in isolation. And the press has forgotten how to put such things in context. They merely serve a "pass through" function now.

but they didn't know any thing about the world

Then if he's hiring recent graduates, he won't find what he's looking for from any school.

Grant said...

The reality of news media today appears to be about getting stuff out quickly and driving sales/readership. Sensationalism sells and everyone's under the pump to get things out with just enough checking to ensure they can't get taken to court.

Anyone who produces media releases can tell you that they're structured so that journos can take it and put it straight into their newspaper/feed as if they'd written it.

Between reports on fields I know about (aviation, IT, etc) and reports on events I attended (protests, dance parties, etc) I lost all respect for journalism years ago. From not bothering to get facts straight to blatant misrepresentation of the facts, quality left reporting long ago.

It doesn't take much to extrapolate this out to fields I don't know about and events I didn't attend. If they're so useless/incorrect about stuff you know about, it stands to reason that the same applies for other stuff.

How about factoring in the editorial bias of various media organisations. Can you believe what you're hearing about foreign policy, wars, economy, etc?

dpierce said...

In addition to many of the other fine comments expressed here, it also seems that it's the media's job to polarize. You're either Democrat or Republican, pro-this or anti-that, activist or uninvolved. A product is either safe or deadly. A foreign country can only be understood as ally or enemy.

There are always stories of crime and overwhelming avarice where the black hats and white hats are pretty clear. That aside, it always seemed like the best stories leave you not so much with a confident opinion, but an appreciation of the complexity of all the variables involved.

Of course, that makes for a poor narrative.

Julien said...

Great post and great comments!

In my opinion the cluelessness of journalists reporting on technical topics can be explained by both the economics and the lack of standards of the profession.

Being a journalist reporting on a given industry rarely pays more than working as a professional in that industry. Think IT, healthcare, law and possibly also aviation. In addition, there are no standards for technical reporting. Any person who knows how to turn on a PC can call themselves an IT journalist, and you do not need to have passed the bar exam to report on court cases.

That's where blogging comes in: skilled people have an inexpensive and very effective channel for reporting on things they know best, and no financial pressure to report on topics they're clueless about.

And by the way, the confusion between (wing/engine) stall but also (wing/cowl) flaps is very specific to the English language. It doesn't exist, for example, in French or German. But don't worry, journalists writing in those languages have developed their own body of misconceptions :-)

swoopysailor said...

"I can gather all the news I need from the weather report..." - Simon & Garfunkel (all you under-40s can go google ;-).

For many years now I no longer subscribe to a newspaper. No cable/satellite t.v. either.

I still scan a few internet news sources - the more reliable ones - and a couple of blogs. My view of the world is much more positive without "the media" coverage as it now exists. I actually grumble and complain less!

In light of current financial turmoil around the world, I wonder if news reporting is inaccurate there as well. And how much the fear-mongering media is triggering sell-mania on the markets?!

Chill, folks! If Warren Buffet is actually Buying! then maybe that should tell us something. (I'm guessing he doesn't get his information from the news media.)

Dave Starr said...

Theer used tobe a common but sometimes applicable saying, "Those that can't do, teach." Today, perhaps unde rpressure of the Teachers unions of the world it seems to have been switched to "Those who can't think, report."

Just before this post popped on screen I saw yet another reference to the Qantas burst O2, landing at RPLL incident slugged "More faults noted on Qantas jet in terrifying plunge."

I didn't even bother to read it .. so disgusted that people actually get paid to write such claptrap.

It's a sad commentary on an educational system that rgards anything more technical than buying somehting with a credit card "too complex" for their raders/viewers.

Anonymous said...

I have seldom a media report published by a general audience media outlet, regarding any specialist subject about which I have more than general knowledge, that did not contain at least one serious error.

Since my primary training is in international relations, I can say with confidence that they're just as bad with high politics--war, peace, global financial crises--as they are with aviation, computers, railways, and pretty much everything else.

The general audience media are more-or-less passable sources of absolute facts (for example, that 'X' happened at 'Y') but they are utterly useless at validating statements for accuracy or accurately conveying all-important context of why an event happened and what the consequences will be.

If a general audience publication reports, for example, that a war has broken out somewhere, the report will generally be right. Whatever explanation the report gives for who is involved and why they are fighting will almost certainly be critically incomplete or flat out wrong.

PlasticPilot said...

You're just so correct... Medias have to do something to sell their products, and their way is not to report the truth.

I don't know if it is a question of knowing what they're talking about (nobody can be expert in all domains), but their goal is clearly to talk about things as soon as possible. Do you remember the guy interviewed after the Boeing 777 accident in Heathrow, who told all major TV networks he was onboard, and the plane was shaken, then bank... The reporters did not even asked him for a boarding pass or something, and it was finally demonstrated that the guy was not a passenger of this flight, but was just having fun with media...

Click here to read more

o (Swedish journalist) said...

I'm sorry, all, but this is just a case of "You get what you pay for". No one is interested in paying us journalists for being investigative and curious. You want your newspapers for free or nearly free. Well then, who's gonna pay us for paying attention to every detail in a story?

I spend a lot of my private time trying to catch up and learn about the subjects I'm writing about. I love the fact that I need to be expert in hundreds of different areas. But I don't know for how long I can keep this up. Even journalists have families...

Actually, there are newspapers and TV channels out there that tries to only say things that they know about. That try to avoid scaring the public just for effect. Only no-one ever reads them. "Boring!"

I understand your frustration. But if you ask of me to take the time to understand how your industry works, please take the time to understand how my industry works.

Also, complain! I love it when I get an email saying I got something wrong. It's embarrasing as hell, but at least it saves me alot of embarrasment later on.

Aviatrix said...

Thank you all for validating my frustration, and especially thank you to o the Swedish journalist for daring to speak up and tell us what we had wrong. And I'm heartened to know that only English-language journalists can confuse the engines with the wings. I'd be curious to know what terminology confuses non-aviation folks in other languages.

Oshawapilot said...

You know what's even more frustrating? When not only the media and much of the public are clueless about your line of employment (and regularly misconstrue things as a result), but some of your co-workers in said industry are also so far out of touch with what they're operating that even *they* are effectively clueless.

The joys of "grandfathering" into industries - you end up with people who never learned about things because they were never required to, and now they've no idea why "Button A" causes "Widget B" to operate, they just know it does.

Julien said...

There's one piece of aviation terminology in French that's generating a lot of confusion: décrochage, i.e. the French word for wing stall. While being different from engine stall (calage moteur), it is very non-intuitive for the general public.

Décrochage literally means "taking off the hook", i.e. the action you would perform for example when removing a painting from the wall. For the uninitiated, "décrochage" therefore brings up the image of wings falling off the airplane.

Sometimes journalists actually bother asking someone who knows. Take the recent crash of a Spanair MD-82 in Madrid. One hypothesis is that wing flaps were not deployed correctly on take-off. According to Le Monde, wing flaps are used to increase or reduce the speed of the airplane (bad, that'd be a fail on the PPL oral exam), while Le Figaro got it right, explaining that wing flaps increase lift during take-off and landing and are used for reducing take-off distance. Both are major newspapers in France with comparable audiences.