Journalism or Sensationalism?

Here in the UK today, the main headline in our news is the aeroplane which crash-landed at London Heathrow Airport. I think it’s fair to say that us Brits have somewhat of an obsession with aviation, probably thanks to those engineers and service men responsible for the defence of Britain during the second world war. Whenever an amateur pilot encounters a problem with their aircraft, it will usually make national news, although naturally such false factors as the perceived importance of those involved will often dictate the degree of air time devoted to their plight.

However, my view of aviation is undoubtedly distorted, given that my dad worked as an air traffic controller for forty years. Whenever anything aviation-related made news, I have been privileged to have the knowledge of a professional view of a situation to call upon, for as an analytical thinker I do value any opportunity to establish what’s really going on.

Let’s return to this particular crash. What do we know?

  1. A British Airways airliner crash-landed.
  2. Everyone on board survived and escaped without serious injury.
  3. The cause of the accident is currently unknown.
  4. The cause can be and will be found out, once materials such as the flight instrument data have been fully analysed.

Here are a few other things we can also fairly safely assume.

  1. While many of us know how to drive a car, few of us know how to fly a commercial airliner.
  2. As in any industry, there are a multitude of technical terms and procedures associated with flying. I don’t intend to insult the intelligence of anyone with experience of working in aviation, nor do I wish to embarrass myself with my complete ignorance of most of it. I have enough trouble getting my head around three-dimensional movements!

Given all I’ve said so far, why is it that in the whole of this afternoon’s media coverage, I’ve not noticed the BBC make any attempt to probe this incident by consulting anyone from the aviation industry? On one hand, we should be reassured by this absence of experts from our media coverage, since their wisdom is needed elsewhere in making sure that normal operations around our airports and airspace may be restored. Yet there are folks, such as my dad, who have retired from a life’s service to aviation. Why were their views not sort? Instead, all I heard questioned on the radio were views from those who saw the accident. But unless they were on board the plane and could see both of its engines and examine the flight instruments first hand, what can they tell us? We already know that the plane crashed, but only an aviation expert such as a pilot is qualified to analyse this information and make valid conclusions from it. In the space of a few minutes, I heard BBC journalists describe the crash as an emergency landing, a crash landing, a catastrophic failure from a few hundred feet above the built up area that surrounds the airport, and an incredibly lucky escape for a plane which was just a few feet above the ground while still a couple of miles away from the runway. This contempt of the truth only serves to confuse the audience. If we don’t know what’s going on, why is it considered disgraceful to admit as much?

There are issues of competition between news agencies which must not be forgotten. If Joe Blogs the reporter doesn’t know what to make of what’s happened, you can bet your bottom dollar that John Block might, leading to a loss of respect and audience for Mr. Blogs.

I only feel compelled to write in here though as one factor, that of the British weather, was not explored at all. Power failures, engine trouble and all sorts of other rather dramatic possibilities have been analysed by these journalists. But not the weather.

On this occasion, dad was very lucky, not least because he wasn’t on duty! But as it happens, he flew back into the country and into Heathrow, minutes before the crash. He noticed that wind seemed to be affecting the horizontal balance of his aircraft when it came in to land. He told me as much when I rang him, after I heard about it. So I proceeded to try and contact the BBC. I left voice messages, sent texts and emails, inviting them to seek the professional opinion of an air traffic controller. Dad also composed several detailed correspondences for the BBC’s benefit when he returned home. Nothing happened.

“So what?” you ask. “Surely they can’t be expected to get in touch with everyone,” and you’d be right. But in all that time, they managed to track down several passengers, a cabby and a few other people who observed the event from the odd car park or back garden.

We can’t dismiss any source of data until we begin analysing it, so I’m not going to criticise the BBC for concentrating on tracking down those who might have observed the crash. What infuriates me is their complete failure to consult anyone who might have helped piece together the information as it became available. Analysis of such a unique situation performed by those of us unfamiliar with this sort of data is bound to lead to inaccurate and irresponsible conclusions. Yet perhaps more worryingly, we’re ready to embrace these analyses as the truth!

Given that we suspect our media of failing to consult experts when analysing an aviation matter, it’s almost tempting to question their authority in piecing together other circumstances, although I’m obviously only speculating here. What I can’t help but wonder is if the media are not at least partly responsible for the synical attitude adopted by many of us, according to various examples of market research, toward issues such as politics, crime and the social responsibility of our youth (for want of better examples).

End of Rant