Tuesday, August 11, 2009

NPR gets it wrong

NPR missed the mark with this two-way last evening with NPR's Robert Benincasa, who reportedly had "analyzed" data showing many near-misses among pilots who fly via "visual flight rules." The piece doesn't say what data was being analyzed. Pilots aren't required to file any paperwork to report a "near miss" and there's no definition of what a "near miss" is.

The Atlantic's James Fallows, points out the lack of expertise in some of the reporting on the incident and subsequent calls for further restrictions.

I mentioned shortly after the tragic Hudson River aerial crash that a person who had never driven cars - let's say an Amish farmer -- might look at traffic on a busy roadway and think: how do they keep from hitting each other?!? How can it possibly be safe? Similarly, people with no experience in airplanes might look at areas like the Hudson River "VFR corridor" and think: how do they keep from hitting each other?!? How can it possibly be safe?

NPR's conversation also suggested that VFR (basically, see and avoid) pilots have only their eyes to save them. That's not true. There's also a service provided by air traffic controllers called "flight following" this is available on request. Controllers, using their radar, will alert pilots to conflicting traffic. The pilot has to request this service and the controller's workload has to permit it.

The NPR conversation also said:

There's also been some talk of requiring aircraft that fly in this corridor to be equipped with transponders. And these are these electronic devices that allow air traffic controllers and other aircraft to know where a particular aircraft is.

This one is particularly puzzling because such a mandate already exists. It's called a "Mode C veil" and it exists within 30 miles of major airports (including the Twin Cities) in which all planes must have an altimeter-reporting transponder that can be picked up on radar.

In addition, many pilots are equipping their planes with new, relatively inexpensive traffic alert systems that alert him/her to conflicting traffic.

Former CNNer Miles O'Brien gets it right:

It is NOT the Wild West up there – as one congressional staffer suggests. Not by a long shot. There are rules that pilots follow and the safety record speaks for itself.

It is a busy place with a lot of traffic and you have to pay attention all the time. But that’s New York for you. When two cars collide in Midtown Manhattan, do we instantly insist the traffic laws be changed?

The odds of this accident happening were long indeed. If either pilot had taken off five or ten seconds later (or earlier) it would not have happened.

It is a terrible tragedy and we all mourn the needless loss of life. But it was, statistically, a black swan – and not the result of some endemic, systemic flaw. Let’s resist the temptation to try and fix a system that is not broken. More often than not, the unintended consequences simply make matters worse.

O'Brien gets it right because he knows what he's talking about; he's a pilot. And it's worth pointing out that the "media is against us" mentality is as inaccurate as NPR's reporting. There are pilots who work in the media.

So why do these inaccuracies get into the reporting? Speaking from an experience, I'd say it's the arrogance of the editorial process. Editors, and some reporters, don't like to admit that they don't know everything. So you can have a resource of expertise in the newsroom on an issue that's not mined by a less-expert editor and reporter.

The dirty little secret of the media is also that the editorial process starts with an assumption, and then mines data to confirm that assumption. Technically, the facts are correct, but contextually the resulting piece is wrong because data and facts that might challenge the assumption might be ignored or, even worse, not sought in the first place.

I suspect that's what happened at NPR.

Disclaimer: I have an opinion on the issue that's almost as strong as my distaste for inaccurate reporting.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bob,

    I hadn't had a chance to drop by your page for a couple weeks, and was getting caught up. I remember hearing that particular report on NPR the morning it aired, and thinking "why in the world did they get a statistician, rather than a pilot, to interview!? It looks like you saw it the same way I did - one of the FEW NPR clunkers....