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Blog entry by Graham Green

The role of the media when covering a major aviation accident

The role of the media when covering a major aviation accident

The role of the media when covering a major aviation accident is often criticised. While the media may argue they are simply doing their job and satisfying the public’s desire for information - investigators though, do comment (and provide criticism) on HOW the media conduct themselves when reporting accidents.

Christopher Payne, senior visiting research fellow from the Disaster Prevention and Limitation Unit at the University of Bradfield has highlighted four key attributes when criticising the media. The first attribute is inaccurate reporting and relates to instances when journalists simply get it wrong. The second attribute is intrusive manner, and this comes into play when journalists “confront” victims for their version of the events. This is followed by lack of sensitivity and concerns the presentation or depiction of the accident – either while it is occurring or in the aftermath of the event. Finally, unco-operative attitude and this is when the media do not follow instructions (either from the investigating team or from judicial authorities) and insist on publishing or broadcasting material that the various authorities have not released or approved for release.

The process of controlling the media is a key component when conducting an investigation. This is critically important when the actual accident has just occurred, and the media are on location at the scene (and obviously having an urgent need for information). The Australian Transport and Safety Bureau (ATSB) recommends for the establishment of a dedicated media centre with a central calling number for all media enquiries. This media centre will then co-ordinate all press conferences, interviews and media releases. The ATSB recommends keeping the media informed through this media centre and to regularly conduct media conferences where the media has the opportunity to ask questions relating to the accident. The use of regular press conferences and/or accurate press releases as a means to gain media confidence is further recommended by the International Society for Air Safety Investigators.

While the ATSB solution may be suitable for a major or large-scale accident, it does not provide a suitable solution for smaller operations – or one where the media needs to be controlled in a confined but easily accessible location, e.g. a hospital.

In this instance, the use of press releases and media conferences are still an ideal method in providing information to the media. The hospital concerned can establish a dedicated press room and a Press Liaison Officer can be on hand to assist with all media enquiries – and to establish the limitations of the media, i.e. not be allowed to intrude on victims and not to be in the vicinity of the mortuary. The control of the media at hospitals though is a matter for management.

The media are trying to establish the circumstances and issues concerning any accident. By releasing details and information in a regular, accurate and controlled manner, the Investigator-In-Charge may overcome the negative attributes and criticisms that have previously fallen on the media.


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