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.
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.
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.