Awful Media Coverage of Crashes

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In my blog last week, I took the mainstream media mildly to task for its technically poor reporting on aircraft accidents in general and, specifically, the Colgan crash in Buffalo. But I also expressed some sympathy for the hapless reporter faced with explaining complex aviation topics to readers with short attention spans. This led someone to comment that weak reporting is "criminal."

Get a grip. When we, as pilots, overreact to media reporting, we look just as silly as the reporters we're skewering. And while the suggestion that every media outlet should have an aviation specialist makes sense, the newsroom reality is that media jobs are melting like snow in April. Where there used to be court, cop, education, business and transportation reporters, there are now a couple of warm bodies struggling to do it all.

Against that backdrop, I grade the mainstream media coverage of the Buffalo crash — and I have read a lot of it — as a solid B-plus. I've seen some clinkers, but not many. From the always-room-for-improvement file, I'm taking the opportunity to deconstruct some snippets from the New York Times filed by Matthew Wald last week. Wald does most of the Times' aviation stories and he's good at it. The reporting is solid and he's a skilled expository stylist, although I wish that the copy desk would do its job by tightening the prose here and there. Here are some examples:

Closer examination of the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder from the plane, a twin-engine turboprop Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, shows that 26 seconds before the recordings were stopped by the impact, a warning alerted the crew that the plane might lose lift and fall out of the sky, and an automatic system tried to push the nose down to gain airspeed. But soon the nose climbed to 31 degrees, far steeper than the steepest normal climb. Suddenly, the nose plunged to a downward angle of 45 degrees, almost like a fighter plane breaking off to dive. Then it rolled to the right, beyond 90 degrees, all the way to 106 degrees.

For a general audience, this is a good technical summary of some of the NTSB's factual findings. The writer gets major points for calling the recorders by their names and not "black boxes," a persistent and self-perpetuating media myth. But here's the problem: For lack of accepting that a general audience can understand the concept of an aerodynamic stall, Wald uses "fall out of the sky" instead. I'm getting a news clinker warning light on that one, and it's illuminating Katie Couric's stunned visage upon learning that airplanes actually glide. I maintain that readers can grasp the concept of a stall if it's explained correctly and once defined, it's readily available for second reference later in the story. Here's how I'd edit that graph:

Closer examination of the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder from the plane…shows that 26 seconds before the recordings were stopped by the impact, a cockpit alarm alerted the crew that its airspeed was too slow and the plane was nearing an aerodynamic stall, in which the wings lose lift. The Q400 has an automatic system—called a stick pusher—that lowers the nose to regain lost airspeed and this device activated.

In a later story, Wald did tackle the stall concept. In fact, as the coverage evolved, his descriptions got better. Here's his prose:

The plane has an emergency system called a stick pusher that activates when it anticipates that the plane is going to stall, or move too slowly to generate enough lift to keep flying. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, when the system took control of the plane and pointed the nose down, the autopilot deactivated itself. The crew then pointed the nose up and tried to increase power.

In my view, that's an accurate, lucid summary of what the NTSB said, although I'd quarrel with the notion that a stick pusher "takes control" of the airplane. Again, rather than dumbing it down by saying "move too slowly," I'd edit it to say: "flying at an airspeed too low to generate sufficient lift." Flying is moving, but moving isn't necessarily flying. We're talking airplanes, not chess pieces, traffic or bowels. The copy desk deserves a dope slap for letting that past.

And now, on to explaining the tail stall, the journalistic equivalent of attempting brain surgery. Even pilots have trouble understanding it. I'm an ATP-CFII journalist and I struggle explaining it to a pilot audience. Yet Wald had the larger challenge of making it clear to the layman:

If the trouble began with a huge upward jump of the nose, then another hazard of turboprop aircraft, ice buildup on the tail, was probably not an issue. Sometimes ice limits the ability of the tail to perform its main function, which is to control the up-and-down movement of the nose. Normally the tail exerts a downward force, moving the nose up as pushing down on one end of a seesaw will raise the other end. Sometimes if ice builds up, the tail will still function well enough for a plane to cruise in flight, but will not work well enough when the crew makes a change in the configuration of the airplane, by, for example, lowering the flaps before landing.

Whew! He got through that one unscathed, despite the awkward construction. I liked the seesaw analogy. Again, the copy desk is asleep for letting "hazard of turboprop" slip through. I'd argue that it should be hazard "for" turboprop. Once again, a reluctance to use accepted aviation terminology obscures reader understanding. Rather than "huge jump upward," it should be "sharp pitch up." I think any reader will understand the word pitch. Last, if the concept of the stall has been explained earlier in the story, the writer is free to say something like this: "Just as the wings can stall due to ice accumulation, so can the horizontal stabilizer—the airplane's tail. If that happens, the pilot may lose the ability to control up and down nose pitch." All of these are, as our new President might opine, lost educational moments.

Wald even ventured into explaining why flaps aggravate ice-induced tail stall potential. But here, he ran off the rails:

Extending the flaps also may slow the plane down. Every wing, as well as the tail, has a stall speed, a minimum speed below which it will not function correctly. As the wing is covered with ice, the stall speed increases. If the plane slows down, it may drop below the tail's new stall speed.

Stall speed for the tailplane? This will strike the pilot-reader as a clinker. Airspeed is merely an accepted surrogate for what really causes any wing to stall: excessive angle of attack. Flap extension aggravates the tail stall condition because the downwash associated with it raises the local angle of attack closer to the tail's stall angle. Airspeed is merely along for the ride. And actually, with flaps down, the main wing's angle of attack typically goes slightly negative from the slightly positive angle it has in cruise. This tends to make the tailplane's angle more positive, producing the odd paradox that speeding up the main wing by pitching down moves the tail closer to its stall angle, while slowing down decreases the tail's angle and thus its stall potential.

The point of all this blather is that the reporting on this crash (and others) has drifted off the mark a bit, but it hardly rises to the level of a criminal complaint. On AVweb, we report a story like this from afar, using other media sources and, where warranted, our own. When I read stories like those posted above, a little decoder goes off in my brain that automatically interprets dumbed-down journalistic prose into pilot speak.

If the basic facts are there—they usually are—I can overlay the aviation expertise. For example, Wald's report on a 106-degree bank angle tells me a lot about potential controllability issues, as it would any pilot. It's easy to imagine that the airplane was departing—the story provides all the detail you need to figure that out.

And given the blinding pace of the 24/7 news cycle, that's about all we should expect.

Comments (3)

Paul writes in his blog "the newsroom reality is that media jobs are melting like snow in April." No argument from me about that but there are lots of free resources available to any reporter in any medium. One of the legacies of Phil Boyer's background in communications/television is the availability of experts (and a professional production studio) at AOPA HQ who can be, I'm sure, consulted by any reporter or editor no matter what time their deadline occurs. I'd bet the NBAA, EAA, GAMA, and other alphabet organizations have similar operations up and running. In today’s world with the 24/7 news cable channels I can almost understand the inaccuracies in the breathless reporting in the minutes after an accident but it often seems that the “experts” put before the cameras aren’t really experts but people pushing an agenda. That’s where the professionally run aviation organizations could add a great deal to the discussion. But, they have to be asked.

Posted by: Mike Thompson | March 2, 2009 11:03 AM    Report this comment

Paul's blog this time highlights why AVweb is consistently my first choice for aviation news - even ahead of AOPA and EAA. Paul is simply an outstanding communicator, one with a masterful command of the English language.

Would that most journalists could even pass an English grammar exam, let alone understand what they are reporting. For example, who anointed newscasters with the right to conjugate 3rd person past-tense of the verb "to plead" as "pleaded" instead of "plead" [Pled]? Would news-people also say "the victim bleeded to death"?

No, under-informed media reporting is not criminal per se. Yes, I can also sometimes make sense of the gobbldeygook that some newscasters spew forth, but doing so gives me a case of indigestion.

When I want to know what really happened, it's Avweb and/or the NTSB database for me.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | March 5, 2009 12:09 PM    Report this comment

The one thing I have learned from the media is this. An airplane is doomed and will crash if: IT ISN'T ON A FLIGHT PLAN or ISN'T TALKING TO THE TOWER or IT LOSES AN ENGINE or THE PILOTS DON'T LET THE AUTO-PILOT DO IT'S JOB!

So you see, it's that simple. Where can I become a reporter?

Posted by: Kim Barnes | March 5, 2009 12:55 PM    Report this comment

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