ATW Editor's Blog

Media in a spin of shame

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Today’s news that a Germanwings A320 has crashed in France, with no survivors expected among the 150 passengers and crew, is tragic.

The immediate priorities, of course, are to locate the aircraft wreckage, retrieve the bodies and care for those who have lost loved ones. The crash investigation ultimately will bring the answers as to what, how and why? And if there are lessons to be learned, the air transport industry will work together to ensure they are incorporated so that airline travel becomes even safer than it already is.

Note that 2014, even with the high profile crashes of Malaysia Airlines MH370 and AirAsia QZ8501, was the global airline industry’s safest year ever. According to IATA figures, and as measured in hull losses per million flights of Western-built jets, the global accident rate was 0.23 -- the equivalent of one accident for every 4.4 million flights. (The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH17 does not count as an accident).

None of these incidents are linked except for one thing – the never-ending rush by the media and “armchair experts” to determine the cause, no matter how little is known or established.

Coverage of the Germanwings 4U9525 incident is already following that pattern. Even the BBC, after beginning its coverage by saying the cause of the crash was not known, then contradicted itself with this sentence, “The BBC's Transport Correspondent Richard Westcott says it seems most likely mechanical failure was behind the crash.”

Even more shameful is this headline in the Washington Post: "A lingering question after Germanwings jet crash: Just how safe is the Airbus A320?"

There is no factual basis or evidence whatsoever for those statements, which are speculative and implying of known causes even before the wreckage was located.

But perhaps worst of all are the photos being circulated on Twitter that are purported to be the Germanwings aircraft, but which are actually images of other totally unrelated crashes.

In a February speech in Washington DC at the International Aviation Club, US Aerospace Industries Association president and CEO Marion Blakey – a former FAA Administrator and NTSB chairman – noted how much media coverage has changed over the years. She said that while she dealt with some tough questions on crash investigations during her time at FAA and NTSB, media coverage was mostly fair, accurate and based on facts. Today, Blakey said, she is appalled by some of the coverage. In particular, she pointed out that the disappearance of MH370 stirred some of the worst speculation, including one TV presenter who actually asked an industry “expert” if the aircraft might have fallen into a black hole.

I have commented in this column before on this type of ridiculous nonsense masquerading as “coverage”. Investigators are not swayed by this, of course, but in their immediate shock and grief, the relatives and loved ones of people deserve better than to also have to deal with wild and potentially distressing media speculation.

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