Aviation and the Media

Raptor-Syria-Launch

Psychological warfare is a powerful weapon in the military strategist’s arsenal.  If you can get inside your enemy’s cranium, you can drive the fight and potentially hasten your enemy’s defeat.  This isn’t anything new, of course.  The warlord Tamerlane once made a pyramid supposedly built from 90,000 human heads during his Indian Campaign to intimidate his enemy into surrendering.  With the advent of mass media we have seen psychological warfare taking the form of biased news articles and media reports.  There are strongly biased political and economic overtures in much of today’s reporting, and sadly the aviation sector is not immune.

It seems the media is blurring the line between reporting and analysis.  One case study involves a subject of deep interest to me: the F-22’s recent involvement in combat over Syria.  Journalist Bill Sweetman (please note I did not refer to him as an “analyst”) has seen fit to review the pre- and post-strike target photos of the Raptor’s first air-to-ground strike and provide commentary on what it shows.  Although Mr. Sweetman has reported on various military topics for several decades (and based on his commentary), I doubt he has the years of training and experience required of defense imagery analysts before they can provide accurate analysis on targeting and weapons effects.

These are before and after images released by DoD depicting the results of the Raptor's first air-to-ground strike.

These are before and after images released by DoD depicting the results of the Raptor’s first air-to-ground strike.

Furthermore, Mr. Sweetman makes reaching assumptions about the weaponeering of the Raptor’s target when he says “wouldn’t it have been easier to send a UAV with a laser-guided bomb on board in the first place?”  This statement would lead the unwitting reader to believe that he understands the desired weapons effects, the potential for collateral damage, the composition of the building being targeted (density of the concrete, etc.) and that he has expertly paired the results of his target analysis with a 500lb GBU-12 (500lbs being the largest bomb currently fielded on a UAV).

This is a case of a journalist who has given in to his hubris, blurring the line between reporting and analysis, thereby misleading his readers.  Aviation Week actually suspended Mr. Sweetman from a story he was doing on the F-35 because they believed that as a journalist he had crossed a line he should not have crossed.  According to the Flightglobal article outlining the suspension, Mr. Sweetman approached the F-35 topic from the “standpoint of an analyst who has empirically concluded the program is a flop.” (I can’t say I disagree with him on that, but the point is that a qualified analyst should be making those assertions, not a reporter.)  Reporters, like everyone else, are entitled to their opinion, but it should be labeled as just that: opinion.

Mr. Sweetman is not the only journalist who seems to be taking on a role outside his jurisdiction.  In a story with a headline “First U.S. Stealth Jet Attack on Syria Cost More Than Mission to Mars” we find another journalist who is attempting to misguide his readership with flashy headlines, inaccurate numbers, and personal “analysis”.  According to calculations made by the journalist, Dave Majumdar, the Raptor’s first strike cost $79 million.  What the headline doesn’t tell you is that according to the author’s own simple number crunch the majority of the cost – $75.2 million of the $79 million– was attributed to Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs).  The article is further filled with numbers and figures meant to cause the type of shock and awe that gain readers, but have little to do with the truth.

An F-22 returns to base after an airstrike against ISIL target headquarters in Syria.

An F-22 returns to base after an airstrike against ISIL target headquarters in Syria.

Journalists who cross the line between reporting facts and providing conjecture are part of the psychological warfare that is being played out in our media every single day.  They put a spin on their reporting in an attempt to sway public opinion in one direction or another.  It seems there are two reasons for this biased reporting: they are getting paid to influence public opinion in one way or another, or they are simply looking to build an audience and in doing so are ignorant of the results of their reckless reporting.  Either way, the results can be dangerous.  If the journalist is willfully spinning information to influence public opinion one way or another, they could be helping to shape regulations and policy that will apply to those who read their speculation.  Do you want the laws and regulations governing you to be driven in any way by someone who is a self-proclaimed expert with no formal training or experience working in the field on which they are reporting?

Sadly, this doesn’t apply only to defense journalists.  We see it all the time in the civil aviation world – one reporter thought the media frenzy surrounding Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 was so overblown that he referred to the methods of fellow journalists as “cringe-worthy”.

On a more positive note, The New York Times published a piece on their Opinion Page entitled The Dangers of Private Planes.  The piece was published as Opinion and not expert analysis or recommendation – a move that I applaud, and one that other publishers would do well to follow.

In the piece, Mr. Fowler, a Brit and assumed outsider to American GA (note: I wasn’t able to find any information on his personal website that indicated he is a pilot or involved in GA), proposed regulation that would affect every pilot in American General Aviation. While I don’t agree with his assertions, I believe he had no intention of misleading his readers as he was simply stating his opinion.

When seeking expert analysis on topics such as aviation insurance reform, the looming pilot shortage, flight physical regulations, or any number of topics affecting today’s aviator, we must ensure the analysis being provided is by someone with education and experience in the aviation sector.  Journalists can, and most do, provide the facts as they have received them from the source.  Too many, however, continue past that point and tell the reader how they should interpret those facts.  As a media consumer myself, I want to draw my own conclusions.  I simply want the truth (not inflated numbers or glamorized headlines) presented to me, and I want to be the one to decide what I will do with it.  If I want opinion, I will seek it.

I have a hard time believing those journalists guilty of providing unsupported analysis will ever change their ways.  As savvy consumers of media, we must wade through the conjecture and hype in today’s media to find the truth, cling to it when we find it, and form our own opinions.  This way, we can mitigate the effects of the psychological warfare being waged upon us by some of those who should be merely reporting the facts.

17 Comments
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17 Comments

  1. Eric Auxier says:

    Rob,
    Excellent post!

    You are exactly right. We all suffer from headaches when both Hollywood and the media get ahold of anything labeled “aviation.” For this reason alone, I can’t bring myself to watch the movie, “Flight,” with one of my favorite actors, Denzel Washington. I understand it’s an excellent portrayal of a man recovering from addiction…but to get there, you have to first stomach mind-bendingly inaccurate Hollywood portrayals of pilots and flying! Sorry, PASS!

    Reporters, who should know their place and simply report, have crossed the journalistic line into opinion articles, usually peppering their posts with their own opinion, blending the lines between fact and opinion so murkily that one knows not where fact ends and fiction begins. I suppose it’s up to pilot-reporter types like us to help stay the line.

    One personal headache is a reporter named Ted Reed, from Forbes. He is basically an opinionated mouthpiece for a specific pilot group, couched in the guise of “unbiased reporter.” Apparently, Forbes either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that his “unbiased reporting” is anything but. It has damaged Forbes’ reputation beyond repair in my eyes. In one recent report, he uses loaded words such as “flawed ruling” when reporting about a seniority list created by a Federal arbitrator. The ruling is anything but, and is an excellent example of a very complex compromise hammered out between two seniority groups in a merger. However, his buddies hate the ruling. Instead of saying “flawed according to some”, he simply states, “flawed.” This is an abuse of the reporter’s duty.

    Link: http://www.forbes.com/sites/tedreed/2014/09/28/american-pilot-leader-america-west-pilots-should-join-seniority-talks/

    In its coverage of MH17, CNN gave itself a horrendous black eye by parading droves of self-proclaimed “experts” across the screen for weeks afterwards. At least they got ONE right: Karlene Pettit! She does a great job of shredding those goofballs spouting silly, ill-informed stuff. I hope CNN keeps turning to her for REAL facts!

    1. Rob Burgon says:

      Great comments all around Eric. What gets into these people’s heads? I know Wikipedia has a lot of good information, but just because you spend a week or less researching and writing an article doesn’t make you an expert. I agree with you, the media outlets need to take responsibility for the people using their stage to convey a personal message. Just the facts and ONLY the facts please!

      1. Eric Auxier says:

        Agreed! The internet information age has upped the quantity and VASTLY lowered the quality!

        Just this week, on the front page of USAToday (you know, that paper deliberately written at the 2nd grade level), there was an article criticizing the new Cosby biography because it did not–gasp!–address INTERNET RUMORS about his alleged “sexual abuse” accusations–which he’d been CLEARED of in court!

        It kept comparing “today’s journalism” to “yesterday’s”–that is, Old School would only address FACTS, and New School address all RUMORS.

        Sorry, call me Old School!

  2. Mark L Berry says:

    Great topic Rob. I cringe whenever I see talking heads with the title “Aviation Analyst” displayed underneath them on the small screen. This is easily translated to “Unqualified Opinionated Mouthpiece.” If the ‘analyst’ had any real qualifications such as “Airline Pilot,” “Military Aircraft Commander,” or even “Licensed Private Pilot,” those would be indicated instead.

    Furthermore, it seems common knowledge that each network has its own strong political spin. Most, if not all, networks are owned by just a few large conglomerates. Money and power generate extremely biased reporting. The internet is supposed to be the domain of uncontrolled opinion, but since its inception it has remained a difficult-to-navigate digital Universe. Search engines have helped, and some news sites like The Huffington Post thrive, but the day when unbiased Internet-only news channels reach the masses on the level of the networks is still a long way ahead of us.

    Furthermore, the media often spins Internet news as conspiracy theory, or refers to it with other derogative terms designed to erode public confidence beyond their televised empire.

    The cardinal rule to “consider the source” still applies. I think it would be hard to find anyone who believes the networks provide news ‘quality’ over ‘quantity.’ News channels have 24 hours-a-day to fill, and as a result most of what airs is just filler. Perhaps a strong aviation news channel on the Internet can someday pull viewers away from the major networks. I look forward to an era when viewers have an educated alternative with more integrity than political objective.

  3. Ron Rapp says:

    Boy, this is a topic that needed to be broached. There are so many reasons for the problems you describe. Poor and/or biased journalism is nothing new; it’s older than our republic. Heck, it’s older than Rome’s!

    But today, we have a 24 hour a day news cycle and perpetual connectivity via social media and the larger internet. Big Media is Big Business, and their industry is a competitive one where the combatants are climbing all over themselves to reach the top of the heap.

    Journalists are like pilots: they’ve seen their compensation, prestige, and prospects decline dramatically over the last 30 years and are struggling to stay ahead of the wrecking ball. With all the ambient noise, it’s not enough to simply report facts. News as entertainment: that’s where we are.

    And I’m sure reporters get less time and fewer resources with which to generate their product. It’s a bad combination, and We the People are not necessarily well served by it.

    If there’s an upside to this, it’s that some media consumers are growing in their skepticism and sophistication. A hundred years ago it was hard to ferret out the truth because the resources to do so were not available. But today there are blogs, publications, and information coming from actual experts. For example….. you.

    Obviously you’re limited in what you can say since you’re active duty. And there are those pesky security clearance rules, of course. But at the end of the day, even though you have to self-censor and proceed with caution regarding what you post, you’re getting the message out there: “this reporting/opinion is not accurate”. I think that’s half the battle.

  4. Karlene says:

    Rob, I had a friend who told me she watched CNN to see the “idiotic” things people would say about MH370 that had no clue. (Thank you for not including me in that group. :)) But it became a joke. What about those who don’t understand? They believe the non-truths out there. It’s all about theatrics and creating drama. Which belong in books, not in social media. I have far too many family members who see this stuff and it turns their worlds upside down with fear. My mother is continually emailing me… “I heard…” with a panic.

    I’m in the midst of Statistics in my PHD program and we are discussing the power and responsibility that scientists have with honest, unbiased reporting. What will it take for these people (non-experts) to stop the rhetoric without any foundation of what they say?
    I wish they were liable. Or there was a clause of ethics in writing. I think if just one of those people became liable for the harm they caused, they would stop. However, there is no quantitative data to prove harm. But we know it’s there.

    There are also two different types of people… those who think something and don’t understand and express what they know as their paradigm. Then there are the professionals know exactly how to skew reality and create fear. It’s a mess. It hurts industry and harms people.

    I’m not sure of the answer, but if more people call them on it like yourself, then maybe things would change. Thank you!!!

    GREAT Post and thank you for the positive mention too.

  5. Brent says:

    Rob,
    Great article! This topic is not one that is tackled very often, but does bear repeating. Mainstream media has had a nasty habit of misreporting that seems to be getting worse with time. Albeit because we can often source the facts and disprove them more readily than before with the proliferation of the Internet.

    Especially with aviation it seems like the “experts” that report are way outside of their wheelhouse. Instead of doing their homework or seeking counsel with someone qualified, they just wing it and lead the public to believe their opinions or conjecture are fact-based.

    Long live the Internet where at least we have the truth, if you know where to find it.

    Brent

    1. Rob Burgon says:

      Absolutely Brent – the internet is both a blessing and a curse. All we can do is hope the folks who read that stuff take the time to research it and decide for themselves while pointing everyone in the direction of those who have the expertise to provide analysis.

  6. Dave says:

    This is such an important topic these days but one that is becoming increasingly difficult to combat. Way too many people believe everything they read on the internet or see on tv, and most of them right after admitting that you can’t believe everything you see or read.

    Too many people are just lazy and want to believe the extreme because it is more exciting, or simply because the networks have become experts at making you believe everything you see. As I write this I am reminded of a great example from a great movie.

    In the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus he talks about how he was introduced to John Coltrane’s music and that he hated it at first (I can’t imagine why, Coltrane was a genius), but that he kept playing it and eventually he couldn’t stop playing it because he loved it so much. The news networks just keep telling the same story over and over again so many times that most people assume that because they have heard the same narrative a hundred times it has to be true.

    I am really grateful that I have come to know experts like you and the others who have commented on this post so that I can know the truth. Even as someone with a career in aviation I have come to realize how little I actually know. It just makes it that much more fun to keep learning from all of you experts.

    1. Rob Burgon says:

      Thanks for the comment Dave. I think you shacked it with the reference to Mr. Holland’s Opus. If a story is popular, it will keep replaying (I see this a LOT on cnn.com) and because it keeps being repeated, it gains further moment – the proverbial self-licking ice cream. The more momentum a story has, the more believable it is to the general public. People don’t get to be experts by reading something on Wikipedia or doing a little research with Google. They become experts by doing exactly what you have been doing for the past several years: experiencing and paying attention in their field of profession. (Great read, by the way! http://www.aviationguy.com/2014/10/07/precision-makes-all-the-difference-in-the-world-when-flying/) So, on that note, stay safe with your flying and keep up your writing! We need more aviation experts writing to offset the B.S. a lot of the media throws out there!

      1. Dave says:

        Thank you for the kind words. I am just grateful to have found a handful of reliable sources that I always know I can fall back on for the facts.

  7. Phil Wilhelm says:

    When one talks about truth in reporting, I think back to Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali. Old Howard said it like it was. He defended Ali on, of all places, the Johnny Carson Tonight Show. Cosell, who had a law degree, rightly pointed out that Ali, without due process (before he had gone to trial) had been stripped of his title, banned from boxing, and lost his ability to use boxing as a source of his livelihood. This was at the height of the Vietnam war and popularity, if a war can be such. Howard was taken to task in many of the newspaper editorials, and on the small screen, of the day. He even had death threats made against him for his stance requiring police protection that he refused. Buy the time the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ali, the support for the war was well on its way to eroding. And, Howard Cosell’s critics were turning into his supporters. The way of the press, as history reveals, followed the popularity of the war and the approval of Cosell and Ali. What has this to do with aviation journalism? Absolutely nothing. But is a history lesson that when reading an article from “expert opinions” it is well to take the temperature of public sentiment before forming your own opinion.

    P.S. Very glad you’r back.

    1. Rob Burgon says:

      Thanks Phil – great history lesson! I feel like we see it played out over and over with a different cast every time. As I mentioned to Chip, controversy sells. Unfortunately for general aviation, that means you get a lot of people who aren’t even involved in GA weighing in on subjects that influence policy. It’s all psychological warfare!

  8. chip shanle says:

    Rob;
    Welcome back! The press reports are often cringe worthy and seem to range from wild speculation to flat out wrong. I’ve tried to debunk some of the more ridiculous reporter fantasies over the years. But, it is like trying to hold back the tide in this day and age.

    My last attempt was to correct a file photo that is still being run by various news services identifying an EA-6B as a Super Hornet. Small detail yes; but symptomatic of reporting today. No research, or editing, and even when their mistakes are pointed out they keep running the false information. How can we trust anything else by a source if they can’t get the simple stuff right?

    1. Rob Burgon says:

      Chip, you bring up an interesting point. If the crap the media is spewing is selling (i.e. gaining/maintaining readership) what incentive do they have to improve their reporting or change how they operate? I contend that this is all part of the gradual decay in societal morals/norms we have been witnessing over the past decades. Our society values shock and awe more than truth, and reporters are willing to give to propagate the shock and awe at the expense of the truth in order to make a name for themselves. Controversy sells – truth, sadly, takes a back seat to money.

      1. chip shanle says:

        Rob;

        It is systemic; as a writer I’m astounded by the amount of typos in books. I’m reading one know that has so many I assumed it was self published with out an editor. It in fact is from a major publisher.

        In my article on the aircraft I counted how many clicks it took to find the correct info. If memory serves it was 3. It is amazing how lazy the modern press is.

  9. Andrew says:

    Rob:

    Ugh. I try to ignore / forget / avoid most aviation reporting that does not come out of an industry-specific channel for this exact reason.

    I actually LOVE Mark’s idea of having a “strong aviation news channel on the Internet” to counter the massive “infotainment” misinformation machine that exists today – whether it is simply misunderstanding or real, purposeful, malignant misinformation. Perhaps we formation bloggers can call in any favors we are owed by others in the industry and get something like that off the ground.

    I for one would love to see it!

    Thanks for the thinks – great post, and something we all need to keep in mind and actively counter. So I guess I should stop avoiding and start challenging… head, meet brick wall.

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