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Remarks before the Aviation Safety Alliance Media Seminar, Washington, DC
Jim Hall
Aviation Safety Alliance Media Seminar, Washington, DC

Thank you for inviting me here to be part of this very interesting and very important seminar. I want to thank Carol Hallett, Paul Pike and Shelly Hazle for arranging today's event.

It seems that nowadays everyone has an opinion on the news media, and I have been asked to offer mine. I want to say at the outset that I have great respect for those who have chosen journalism as a profession. Many of you have covered my agency since I arrived in 1994, and many of you have become my friends.

It goes without saying that you have a great responsibility. In large part the world depends on you to tell it what happened and why it happened. Admittedly, the former is a lot easier than the latter. When it comes to stories on aviation accidents, it is the "why" that is fraught with peril, because reputations of companies and individuals are at stake in what you write. So that the extent to which you accept that responsibility in large measure determines how we all are viewed by the general public.

I am reminded of a quotation by Jane Bryant Quinn about that responsibility. She said, "Committing journalism important that it's Constitutionally protected. We need to think all the time about what we are doing with that privilege. When we write without that moral perspective.we're like the atheist in his coffin: all dressed up and no place to go."

We all know how the news industry has changed in the last decade, with competitive 24-hour cable news channels and newspapers now on-line all day long. Modern news is driven by the portability of satellite technology. Everything has become real-time, instantaneous, up-close, and often monotonously over-dramatized in continuing round-the-clock coverage. And if the CNNs, MSNBCs and Fox News Channels aren't enough, just last week the New Yorker Magazine reported that the Weather Channel now intends to cover major airplane crashes on a spot-news basis.

We have come a long way from footage I saw recently of an NTSB press conference at O'Hare Airport a few days following the crash of American Airlines flight 191 in May 1979 - still the deadliest crash in U.S. history. There probably were 3 or 4 cameras and no more than 15 reporters there. Today, you can multiply that by a factor of 10.

Airline crashes are always big news because they are such rare events. You heard earlier today about the relative risks of airline crashes to other facets of our lives. But logic does not necessarily always carry the day. The fact is that when an airliner crashes, you have several elements that make it a big story:

· First, you usually have dramatic video of the accident site itself. · Second, you have the obvious human drama, with interviews of survivors or family members of the victims. · Third, you have the mystery. What could have caused this product of modern technology to "fall from the sky?" and · Fourth, many people have a sense of mortality when they fly so there is a frightening fascination with a major airplane accident.

Everyone connected with such a tragedy faces challenges on dealing with the post-crash environment. The challenge for officials from the airlines and government - and I include myself in this - is not to put ourselves in the trap of having to come up with careless answers before the facts are known. Similarly, you in the news media have to overcome the temptation of providing your own superficial answers or, worse, putting a microphone in front of someone to whom you assign expert status to provide those superficial answers for you.

A former Washington bureau chief lamented the changing nature of news coverage he had seen in his career. He said, "In the old days, on the first day we would report what happened. On the second day we would tell what the reaction was. On the third day we would analyze what it means. Now, CNN tells you what happened and five minutes later some University professor is telling you what it means. That's the problem. We have to find a way to package it all the first day or we're out of business."

That is another challenge that faces you as journalists, and us as investigators. Every time we embark on a major investigation, we do it under the instantaneous scrutiny of the whole world. In the wake of a major accident, waiting a day for reaction will not do, and waiting two days for analysis would be unheard of. The concept of a second-day lead sounds almost quaint today. When broadcast or published analysis is wrong - as it often must be when it is based on little or no hard evidence - it distracts the investigative process and brings needless pain to those who have suffered a personal loss in an aviation tragedy.

For me, the biggest disappointment when I review press coverage is the cavalier way some news outlets give their air time away to people who really don't know what they're talking about. You've all seen examples of this. Where once reporters would try to verify stories before putting them on the air, now, we constantly hear what can only be called rumors being spread by what are considered legitimate broadcasters. How many times have you heard a reporter say, "This isn't verified but.", or "A so-far unsubstantiated report says." If it isn't verified, if it isn't substantiated, why are they broadcasting it?

The veteran political reporter Jack Germond wrote, "In the competitive rush to be first, the old admonition of saying where you get the news, as well as making sure it's true when you get it, has been a conspicuous casualty."

The problem is that we no longer have the filter of time we once had; every reporter, whether on television or in print, is constantly on deadline. Major newspapers have web pages that they want to feed all day long, so even the so-called pencil press reporters are always on deadline.

And, of course, it is not only established media organizations that have web pages, all of us now have the same soap box. With millions of people having the ability to communicate with each other instantaneously, Mark Twain's words were never so true as they are today: "A lie can travel half way round the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes."

All that being said, what should we do about it? After consulting with the Air Transport Association, we are in the process of drawing up new guidelines for airlines to give them a clearer understanding of what is appropriate for them to address with the news media following an accident and what it best left for the investigative body to release. We did this because we know that the airlines are, too, under increasing pressure to release information after an accident, and they have legitimate concerns to be responsive to their shareholders and customers. Those guidelines should be distributed to airlines in the near future.

The NTSB has also made some subtle changes in how it handles media demands in the hours and days after an accident. In brief:

· Three years ago, in response to the enormous demands placed on the Safety Board by the ValuJet and TWA flight 800 investigations, we opened an internal Communications Center so that we can more quickly gather information for the purposes of launching teams and providing information to the public.

· We intend, to the extent possible, to conduct a press conference within hours after an accident to announce the dispatching of our Go Team and to release whatever factual information we have at the time. Traditionally, that press conference would not have been held until our team had arrived on site, sometimes 12 to 18 hours after the accident. · We have made a concerted effort to send a larger contingent of press officers to an accident scene. It was not unusual just a few years ago to send just one public affairs officer. That was the case at ValuJet and for much of the time at TWA 800. We sent two PAOs to Comair in Monroe, Michigan, although one of them was in training. At our last major launch - Alaska Airlines flight 261 - we had 4 press officers at the accident site and another at the family hotel in Los Angeles. · We now try to hold two press briefings every day on site, rather than just the one we used to have after the evening progress meetings, and · We put factual statements and photographs on the Internet while we are still on scene, and have been improving our web site almost every month to provide as much pertinent public information as possible on transportation safety matters.

It is our hope that these initiatives will speed the flow of factual information to the public during the early on-scene phase of an investigation. There will still be the endless parade of "talking heads" across your television screens, but at least they'll base their speculations on more hard facts.

Please let us know if you have ideas on how we can further improve our processes of disseminating information to you and the general public.

Another major initiative is being demonstrated for you here today. This is the fourth such program put on by the Aviation Safety Alliance around the country in the last 14 months. Along with its web site, this organization is trying to provide to the nation's news media factual support for informed reporting of aviation safety issues. I support its goals and hope journalists utilize this valuable resource.

Let me say in closing that there are many good and professional people in the field of journalism. I know because I work with them almost every day. In the old days, and by that I mean 10 years ago or so, they were the reporters who set the tone for everyone else's coverage. But, no more. The access to technology, the ability to beam a picture from anywhere on earth to everywhere on earth, can outstrip common sense, and in some cases, even common decency.

But this need not be the basis for lamentation. For what it's worth, the coverage of the Alaska Airlines tragedy was basically responsible and unsensationalized. The Internet rumors are only now starting to swirl, two months after the accident.

There are no signs that the media heat wave we're in will abate anytime soon. We can only hope that those in authority - like the airlines, the FAA, the NTSB and elected officials - will be responsible and judicious in their public statements after an accident, and that those who disseminate the information will do so with a minimum of speculation and supposition.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss this very important topic with you. I'd be happy to answer a few questions.