There is a cynical adage that a good reporter would never let the facts get in the way of a good story. In reality the facts very often actually make good copy – but they may tell a terribly sad story.
Our politicians believe that the media are guilty of only reporting negative stories and not focusing on the positives. Needless to say, politicians should perhaps create positive stories, rather than to provide the media with ample material for a multitude of negative reports about corruption, crime and nepotism.
Leaving politics aside – nowhere does factual reporting lead to more emotional responses and accusations of negative reporting, than in aviation accident reports.
A recent case in point:
Two accidents on the same day. One claimed the lives of fifteen people, the other, five. The greater death toll warranted a few pictures and a few lines on TV and Radio and after two days was hardly mentioned any more. The five deaths resulted in a flood of media coverage for more than a week and pages of emotion on social media.
What is the difference, you ask? The fifteen people perished in a gruesome minibus taxi accident, the five in an aircraft crash. For those of us involved in aviation this extra public fascination with aircraft accidents remains an enigma.
To me it proves again that, even in this modern age, we are still fascinated by flight – more so than by any other mode of travel. We have positioned airline travel as the safest form of transport available and our public have bought into this concept, not making the distinction between scheduled airline operations and any other general aviation flights.
The major cause of a car/bus/truck accident is usually pretty obvious. The brakes had failed, the driver was drunk, a tire burst – the final link in the accident chain is easy to find. Somehow, we accept road accidents as par for the course – almost as if they are unavoidable.
Any aircraft accident, however, leads to immediate speculation about what happened – we need to know why this happened, because we believe that it should not happen. This allows social media and the news media to have a field day – as I found out after a recent aircraft accident. Within hours of my posting the information as I had received it from a very reliable source at the accident site, reporters were e-mailing and phoning me. One major news channel quoted my post verbatim and even posted a direct link to my Facebook CRM page.
While I did not speculate, I did state in one instance that unconfirmed reports had indicated that the accident aircraft was in the process of flying a procedural approach, which may have gone wrong. The response to my post and media statements was, to say the least, very interesting.
Some personal, rude and insulting responses were posted in reply to my post, as well as a number of more lucid posts, agreeing with my early assessment.
The emotionally charged responses caught my attention – they conformed to the typical and expected reactions after an aircraft crash. After each and every aircraft crash one finds the immediate repudiation of those who might suggest that the pilot/s involved could potentially have made an error, followed by glowing testimonies about the experience, professionalism and skill of those pilot/s.
However, ever since the 1979 NASA conference on Resource Management on the Flight Deck, we have known that human error is responsible for almost 70% of all aircraft accidents. Almost forty years later, that statistic unfortunately still stands. My whole involvement in CRM and Human Factors revolves around this reality and our attempts to avoid more smoking holes.
We can explain the emotional responses in terms of the five stages of the Kübler-Ross Model, which described the human response to death and dying:
First, Denial and Isolation – I don’t believe this is happening, I isolate myself from the reality, its not happening to me.
Then, Anger – This is wrong, it shouldn’t happen, its someone’s fault.
Next, Bargaining – Tell me its not true, maybe you missed something, if only we stopped them, if only the weather was better.
This leads to Depression, which would require help to be overcome, and, finally – Acceptance.
Those negative responses then represented the first two stages – Denial and Anger. One would have to work through the next stages to finally come to acceptance and understanding. Understanding that while it is human to want to speculate about the reasons for such a terrible crash, it should never become a blame game.
The recent Hunter crash is another case in point. The public (via the media) immediately started looking for a scapegoat and the British CAA responded by ordering a review of airshow regulations, as well as grounding all Hawker Hunters (denial and anger). Somehow the media and public now feel vindicated – to what end though? With stringent airshow regulations already in place, the CAA may have no choice but to ban airshows over land! Hopefully reason will prevail in the end.
I postulated at the start that politicians should rather create positive stories than to blame the media for negative coverage of their shenanigans. Perhaps we as pilots and aviation professionals should take heed as well. The positive stories of the many millions of safe flights conducted every day are easily overshadowed by one sad accident.
The answer is deceptively simple, albeit perhaps unattainable: Aircraft accidents make headline news – to avoid those headlines, we should avoid the accident.