In an age of instant everything—and especially a 24/7/365 news cycle—the world of aviation continues to be remarkably vulnerable to the slightest panic. Unaccounted for valise in B concourse? Shut the airport down. Bomb threat half a world away? Strip search passengers.
On Friday, the eighth anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 attacks, we got yet another lesson in this. Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. was all but paralyzed when CNN reported—erroneously, it turned out—that the Coast Guard was trading gunfire with a boat in the Potomac River, a mile from the airport. CNN came by this information because someone was monitoring military radio traffic and heard what turned out to be a training drill. The "gunfire" turned out to be the Coasties warning a boat—the simulated terrorist boat—that it would be fired upon if it didn't halt. It evidently didn't, and "bang bang" announced over the frequency was the gunfire. CNN missed that part, since its anchors were busily breaking in for a news bulletin.
CNN also learned yet again a harsh lesson in the news business: The difference between being first and being right is usually directly proportional to the size of the story. If the story connects aviation and terrorism on the anniversary of 9/11, when everyone is already nervous, it just doesn't get any bigger. Why do CNN and other news outlets do this? Are they just idiots? Or lazy?
They may be both, but the larger issue is competitive pressure in information markets that want everything right now. Via cable, via Web, via text alerts, Twitter and on and on. These networks know that if a major story breaks, the network that gets it first will likely retain the largest audience. It's the news equivalent of shoot first, ask questions later. And before you sniff about ethics and professionalism, realize that audience behavior drives this sort of lunacy. If you're the type of person who high mindedly drives by the accident without even looking, congratulations, you have the rarest of DNA. None of this is to suggest CNN didn't screw up; it did. It should've taken an extra beat to verify the story.
At AVweb, we have the luxury of a slower-paced news cycle—by design. We're sparing in pummeling you with breaking bulletins, thus we have a few hours if not a day to let the facts sort themselves before we publish. We do that because you—the audience—have told us you prefer it that way.
If CNN's viewers would do the same or if editors would be less itchy fingered, those passengers at Reagan would have departed on time and made their connections. But they aren't and they didn't.