Aviation News: Dog Bites Man

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In addition to the comments you see here on our blogs and news stories about aviation events of the day, we get a small trickle of background e-mail with questions, suggestions and the occasional Molotov cocktail. I got one of the latter last night from a reader who allowed as how I was a disgrace to the profession of journalism for getting my facts wrong in the blog about the stolen Cessna 172. He didn't elaborate on what facts were wrong nor did he quite get the idea that blogs are often opinion pieces. His diatribe alluded to something we see often: the phrase "sensationalist media."

I always find this curious and the way news dissemination works on the web illuminates it in ways you might not appreciate. The theory of sensationalist media holds that a news story becomes a news story only because some bored editor hears about it and blows it entirely out proportion, the old "if it bleeds, it leads" test.

But here's another test: Let's say you're in your garden in Michigan putting in your spring bulbs when a Cessna 172 putts by trailing a couple of F-16s hanging on the blades. Do you (a) not even look up from your spade work, (b) look up and think, "hey, jes' the usual F-16 two-ship chasing a Skyhawk" or (c) look up and wonder what hell that's all about. Most of us would pick (c), and that's the essence of what makes a news story a news story: Curiosity.

The web has given us new understanding of how this works. Our site software tells us how many people click on which stories. When we run a breaking crash story or video of something like the Flight 1549 ditching in the Hudson, page views go through the roof. The graph looks like an elevation view of Kansas with Mount Everest in the middle.

There are a couple of ways to interpret this, I suppose. One is that all those clicks are really plaintive votes from readers begging us to stop forcing them to read and view this stuff and to quit appealing to their baser instincts. The other is that readers really like this sort of thing because they're…curious. I'm liking the second explanation.

The aspect of sensationalist media that does ring true is how the story is played. "U.S. INVADED BY AIR FROM CANADA" is at one end of the spectrum, "F-16's INTERCEPT PRIVATE AIRCRAFT" is at the other. Either way, this sort of thing doesn't happen every day and that's what makes it news. As an aviation web site, you expect us to exercise good judgment in tailoring the story to your needs and to acknowledge the fact that you're aviation savvy. I think we generally succeed at that. If you think we don't, let us know. Sometimes, the duty we have in reporting such stories is to provide you with enough information to keep the same thing from happening to you.

Of course, no matter what, in the dynamic world of web journalism, you have voting rights that never expire. If you don't want crash stories or even pieces that don't unfailingly paint GA in the best light, don't click on them. We'll get the message.

Now, personally, I do the crash stuff only in response to popular demand. My own tastes are far loftier, an instinct I developed as an adolescent when I bought Playboy to read the articles.

Comments (9)

Playboy has articles?

Posted by: christopher perkins | April 12, 2009 1:13 AM    Report this comment

Absolutely right Paul, and more importantly, we pilots want to know the actual aviation detail of an incident/accident rather than the mainstream media hype which is so often wrong in aviation accuracy!

Posted by: Jeremy James | April 13, 2009 4:07 AM    Report this comment


Though not sure which reader you are referring to, I do remember one particular commenter taking issue with your "inference" that lax security measures were a "contributing factor" to the aircraft's "unauthorized" flight, where the facts appear to support a different story: the pilot in question appeared to be a student at the school, and had been vetted to operate aircraft, and had indeed been operating aircraft there for some time.

While it's not yet clear what additional measures could have be in place to screen and stop a once-rational pilot from such erratic and unsafe behavior, it certainly doesn't help that most media coverage, implied or directly stated, often holds aviation to a humanly impossible standard of safety, security and performance.

As long as humans are a major "operational component" in the act of aviating, there will occasionally be mistakes and frailties committed and experienced. Hopefully, there are enough checks and balances to catch them long before they become "newsworthy", but inevitably and unfortunately, some WILL get by.

As I stated in my comment on the original article, the only way to make aviation 100% safe is simply not to fly. However, lambasting those who have put forth every reasonably possible effort to ensure safety and operate professionally does little to shed further light on "the story", and only serves to inflame the emotional component that surrounds these issues.

Posted by: Avi Weiss | April 13, 2009 7:38 AM    Report this comment

AvWeb definitely had to cover the story. But your publication had an opportunity to call bullshit on the mainstream media by stating bluntly that there is no meaningful threat posed by a theft of this type, or by light aircraft in general. I think the media in general is driven by 'what interests the public' and will feed and pander to sensationalist representations of incidents of this type. Your job is to help to stop that happening. Isn't it?

Posted by: Ceri Reid | April 13, 2009 8:09 AM    Report this comment

Ceri Reid beat me to the punch.

Maybe what we need is a national "GA Strike" to educate the media hyenas as to the value of GA. Let them report on this: No flights, airports NOTAMed closed, no parts delivered to factories, no packages from amazon.com and their ilk, ATC twiddling their thumbs. I might draw the line at medical airlifts, but little else. How long should it be? A day? A week? Given that a paltry 1% of all pilots chose to comment on the latest TSA NPRM lunacy, maybe I am just tilting at windmills. I expect that the idea won't go farther than this note, but it has been on my what-if list for a while.

Posted by: David MacRae | April 13, 2009 10:48 AM    Report this comment

The GA strike will get the same percentage participation that the NPRM comment period generated -- 1%. With such paltry participation, it will have no effect but will be portrayed as "a bunch of rich, petulant brats who don't want to do their civic duty. Until we all get interested in the landslide of freedom restrictions placed on GA by CBP, TSA and Homeland Security, I think these groups will have their way with us.

Posted by: Don Black | April 13, 2009 1:17 PM    Report this comment

Isn't anyone in the community (besides me) struck by the notion that this suicidal pilot was convinced the USAF would shoot him down? Isn't that the real headline? Come on, people attempt suicide every day (yawn). But eight years of security hysteria equating the whole of GA to Al Qaeda led this individual to genuinely believe that fatal shots would be fired. To be honest, I was as surprised as the Cessna pilot was, that this did not occur. I would have expected the Cessna to look much like the safe house in Clint Eastwood's "The Gauntlet". (For those that missed this movie, the police literally shot a house down, collapsing all four walls with fully-automatic hot lead overkill.)

Has anyone asked the F-16 pilots how this progression of events failed to meet the greatly expanded rules of engagement ("use of deadly force authorized")? Maybe they had already squandered their monthly ammunition allowance? Didn't want to do all the extra paperwork? Already had enough turkey-shooting in Iraq?

I'm really not anti-military, despite this sarcasm. I'm glad the F-16 pilots have good judgment. I just think we only got the obvious (undeniable?) part of the story.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | April 13, 2009 2:10 PM    Report this comment

I guess I feel that it might be safe to say that leaving the keys in the aircraft qualifies as lax security. Even though the school is in Canada this shows a lack of judgement. We GA pilots/operators are all, unfortunatley, judged wanting when something like this occurs. That, also, is human nature.
I agree with Jeremy's statement above that the Avweb mission should include providing the correct aviation detail to the community and the world at large so that we can minimize the hysteria inherent in aircraft incidents/accidents.

Posted by: DAVID MARGULIS | April 13, 2009 3:26 PM    Report this comment

To elaborate on Mr Bertorelli's point - success in our modern media is determined by viewership. Nielsen ratings in TV, subscriptions in print, and clickthroughs on the web. None of those statistics measure journalistic integrity. Hence why certain cable news shows can spout off so much tripe that entire websites are formed to debunk their fictitious claims - but they are praised among their peers for being "the best in the business."

Perhaps you might view the increased clicks as our acknowledgement that we *are* curious, but we try our best to find our news from what (we hope) is a site that reports aviation events sans the sensationalism. You don't need it. You are not in competition with CNN or Fox News. We don't click because we want sensational reporting...we can go elsewhere for that. We click because we lust for aviation-savvy reporting. And I think the lashback you experienced was us holding you to that higher standard, and missing your chance to be the sole sane, restrained voice in aviation reporting.

Posted by: Donald Harper | April 13, 2009 5:13 PM    Report this comment

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