Editor's column by Louise Driscoll

Why I cringe at the media for over-reporting minor airline incidents

Minor aircraft incidents are taking up more column inches, but are these events always in the public interest?

Why I cringe at the media for over-reporting minor airline incidentsOver the past week, I’ve become more and more exasperated with the media organisations who continue to over-report ‘minor’ airline incidents.

I’m referring to certain events where there has been no loss of life, or risk to passenger safety.

These are the criteria I use when trying to make ‘detached’ judgements about which events are in the public’s interest to report.

Of course, there’s a world of difference between what the public finds interesting and what is in the public interest.

But I couldn’t help but cringe reading news reports earlier this week that a United Airlines flight to Cancun was diverted to Cuba after crew noticed a ‘strong, unfamiliar odour’ in the cabin. So, what was the real news here? We felt the event wasn’t important enough to publish.

But I ask you: in today’s era of round-the-clock reporting, do we and other news websites have a duty to keep you fully informed about every minor plane ‘incident’ as it happens?

Or should you trust us to report only incidents that we judge are in your interests to know?

Spreading fear

I feel there is too much media frenzy around reporting every engine failure on a passenger plane, technical glitch in the cockpit, unusual smell in the cabin, and fainting episode at 30,000ft.

Common sense tells us that while these are unfortunate incidents, they can spread unnecessary fear and discredit an industry that, at least in the western world, must meet stringent safety standards.

Why I cringe at the media for over-reporting minor airline incidents

To put the industry’s safety record into perspective, the accident rate of western-built jets was the lowest in history in 2010, according to IATA, the trade body representing the airline industry. The figures translate to one accident for every 1.6 million flights.

The problem with the 24/7 news cycle

Last week I saw how our 24-hour news culture and the rush to report can get in the way of accuracy.

When news broke that an Air Canada flight was “on fire” and making an emergency landing at Sydney airport, I watched the event play out on Sky News, which was showing live video footage of the plane’s descent into the airport.

Minutes later, the story appeared on one major news site, headlined: “Air Canada plane catches fire over Sydney”.

It later emerged that there was no fire, or emergency landing. Instead, the pilot had taken the ‘precautionary’ decision to return to Sydney after crew saw smoke coming from an onboard oven, the airline said.

We chose to report the Air Canada event after these facts had emerged, in order to verify what had in fact happened.

Keeping it official

Let me clarify that not all media coverage of airline incidents is sensationalist and the media alone cannot always be blamed for inaccuracies.

Journalist’s deadlines have disappeared in today’s digital world and with the explosion of information available to us, we are under huge pressures to report the facts first and with pinpoint precision.

But we must do our best to refrain from immediate, speculative reporting in the aftermath of aircraft incidents – and build credibility by quoting official sources, such as the airlines and accident investigators.

Another issue journalists face is that it is not always clear if an aircraft incident has posed a danger to passengers until more facts come to light later.

Last week, we reported on the Jet2.com plane that was caught on camera mid-air with flames trailing from the right-hand engine. The engine was shut down and the plane landed safely.

While the flaming engine would have been a scary experience for passengers on board, some media reports did little to allay their fears with glorified headlines like “panic as engine explodes on British holiday plane from Ibiza”.

And earlier this week, we reported on the Caribbean airlines plane that overshot the runway in wet weather and slid to a stop, with its fuselage broken in two.

All 163 passengers and crew survived without major injuries – a fact that led to some hyped reports of the ‘hero’ pilot and the passengers’ ‘miracle’ escape.

The fact that the passengers all survived was more a case of luck, judging by the badly torn fuselage and the jet’s final resting point, close to a steep embankment.

The media should now focus on why the accident happened and what the industry can learn from it, when the investigation is complete. With all aircraft accidents, there is nearly always more than a single, simple cause.

Stop Press!

I acknowledge that journalists are all under commercial and time pressures – but we owe it to our audiences and the airline industry to engage in more responsible reporting. And we should feel less pressured to report on every minor airline incident.

On that note, a message to you: which type of airline incidents are important to you to read about? What do you want to see in our coverage? We would love to hear your thoughts. Please post your comments below.


What others have said

  1. I, for one, detest the rush to report news. Quite honestly, except for highway traffic reports or news that we’re being invaded by Martians, there’s nothing that can’t wait until the morning newspaper (yes, I still read hard-copy news, too). This goes double for items such as those you mention that turn out to be nothing.

    Unlike Rick, however, I have extensive background in air operations, and know full well that most incidents don’t merit any coverage at all. The real question is whether a given airline learns from its mistakes.

  2. I get information on all published emergency landings pushed to me daily by Google News. This allows me to pick up incident patterns to guide my future flying plans. It is not good enough just to read about the major crashes,these are far too rare. The “near misses” are also very informative. Safety Management 101.

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