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NTSB Chairman Warns 'First Impessions Can Be Wrong'

By Hope Katz Gibbs
The National Press Club
The Wire
Photo by Terry Hill

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Debbie Hersman criticized the way some members of the press cover the aviation and transportation accidents at a National Press Club luncheon held on Nov. 16.

“We understand the need to solve the puzzle in the early hours of an accident, and we know your editors and producers want you to be the first to get the ‘cause’ of the accident, but what is the cost to your credibility if you are the first to get the cause wrong? We have learned from experience that first impressions can be wrong,” she said.

Hersman pointed to some of the less-than-savvy questions NTSB officials have received while on scene, including, “Who makes 747s besides Boeing?” “What kinds of planes make those white lines in the sky?” and “Who was steering the train?”

She said she understands that in today’s tough journalistic climate, “we don’t have the luxury of having only transportation experts cover our work. These reporters are very good surrogates for the public who, although they rely on our transportation system every day, often have a limited understanding of how it operates and how safe it is.”

The question, Hersman asked, is how do we provide important accident information responsibly?

“ As you know, the NTSB has been investigating major transportation accidents for more than 42 years, and in that time we’ve held thousands of press briefings near the accident scenes,” said Hersman, who joined NTSB in June 2004 and took over as its chairman in July 2009.

“I appreciate this opportunity to meet with journalists outside the atmosphere of a major transportation accident … I am often asked about how I feel about working with the press. I have to say, in the beginning, it was quite intimidating to stand in front of a bank of 20 microphones in a room full of cameras with reporters firing questions at me. “

She said that after accompanying NTSB teams to 17 major accidents in the last 5 years — ranging from the collision of two Washington Metro trains at Woodley Park Station in September, the mid-air collision involving a sightseeing helicopter and single engine plane over the Hudson River that killed 9 people in August — she said she had the opportunity to see her staff and the press corps in action.

“Of course all of our beat reporters are top notch, but occasionally we encounter reporters at the accident scene who don’t routinely cover transportation issues and have the – how shall I say it – don’t have a full grasp of the subject matter.

“Even in this changing environment, when you are being asked to re-invent yourselves on a regular basis, I hope you continue to achieve the professional satisfaction you sought when you became a reporter.”


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Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.