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Race for Ratings Why are media often so quick to get it wrong when it comes to breaking airline news? We examine how industry complexities, social media, the connected cabin and shorter news cycles can result in a culture of misinformation. by Brett Snyder illustration Hope Little
Say the words “airline industry” to those in the media, and you’ll see them start to salivate. But say “media” to those in the airline industry and you’ll hear groans. The media has long loved to cover even the most insignificant details when it comes to air travel but, very often, they don’t cover it well. The media loves the airline industry because the general public has a vested interest. That translates into improved revenues. Millions of people are impacted by what happens in the airline industry. And those who aren’t? They still love a good airline story. The Internet and 24-hour news networks have shortened the news cycle, making a compelling story like an emergency landing a shoo-in. Just ask CNN, which saw ratings spike during its near-constant coverage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 for weeks after it disappeared. With such interest in the industry, it’s no surprise that air travel stories get covered in greater detail than many others. Yet it is a very complex industry, and that makes it easy to get things wrong. This is compounded by the fact that fewer and fewer knowledgeable reporters are employed by these news outlets. In a race for ratings, the reporters that remain may turn to people with questionable credentials to fill in the gaps, especially when breaking news is involved.
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Why? Because those with the most accurate information and most rational views aren’t going to provide the same type of wild speculation that fuels the ratings. Instead, the media get talking heads who are promoting their next book or selling consulting services. With outlets in such a hurry to find a different perspective, they’ll turn to social media. Today, you may even see someone on an airplane with Wi-Fi “reporting” on an in-flight incident, bringing back memories of the Die Hard 2 report-byAirfone. Such onboard spectators may rightfully feel anxious, but they don’t
necessarily know the facts about what is happening, or how serious the situation may be. In a world where speed is most important, accuracy takes a back seat. As far as the public is concerned, airlines are evil. They charge too much and provide a miserable experience. The reality is far more complex, but people are predisposed to blame airlines when things go wrong. When it comes to breaking news? Every emergency landing is a harrowing experience that might well end in tragedy. Of course, that’s a much more ratings-grabbing story anyway. And it’s all about ratings.
These aviation news blunders stand out as particularly unsavory. When AirAsia QZ8501 was still missing, CNN’s aviation analyst Mary Schiavo claimed, “At this point, given it was extremely bad weather, the chances of this being some sort of terrorist activity are very small because most terrorist activities take place in good weather.”
Following the 2013 crash of Asiana flight 214 in San Francisco, a KTVU news reporter became an all-tooeasy victim of a prank by reading out racially offensive names for the pilots on live broadcast, then assuring the names had been verified by the NTSB.
Washington Post contributor A.L. Bardach purported in a 2007 article that the death of Carol Anne Gotbaum at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was due to US Airways’ overbooking policy. The airline responded days later with an apt correction to these claims.
Airline Passenger Experience Association