BLOG: A News Martini Chaser: The Accident Chain

Understanding – and we mean really understanding – the news does not happen by accident. But it can happen because of accidents.

To set the stage here, we’re thinking about the United 3411 fiasco and our advice to “mix a news martini” and “wait for it.” The United event was not an accident in the usual sense of the word. But thinking of it in similar terms may help us understand how and why it happened.

Who’s To Blame?

With most stories that trigger a strong reaction there’s a natural tendency to assign blame. It’s easier to understand something that went wrong if somebody did something wrong.

A lot of major news stories end up that way. After the coverage has faded the story often is reduced to who was to blame. But we probably have not gained much understanding. We usually just move on to something else. That may happen with the United 3411 event.

“The Cause Of the Accident Was Pilot Error”

Accidents happen, as they say, but they usually don’t just happen. Sure, there can be bad luck or weird circumstances but accidents rarely happen in isolation. They occur at the end of what investigators call an “accident chain.” If you remove or alter a single link in the chain the accident would not have happened or happened the way it did.

For example, after an airplane crash we’ll see and react to the news story about it. Investigators will look at everything related to the accident or what’s sometimes called “man, machine and environment.” When investigators release their report many months later news stories often will state the cause as “pilot error.” Then you’ll think “bad pilot” and know whom to blame. As an aside, there are legal and regulatory reasons why the term “pilot error” often appears but we won’t cover that here.

It’s usually more complicated than that. In fact, the purpose of the investigation is not to assign blame but to determine cause. When you know the cause you can learn how to prevent similar accidents in the future. That’s understanding.

We’re Looking For Four Volunteers…

There was the equivalent of an accident chain with the United 3411 event. A week after the event The Wall Street Journal (paywall) published its analysis of the sequence of events, actions and policies that led to it. It’s more complex than the common perception that rude employees of a greedy, uncaring corporation coldheartedly mistreated a paying passenger who ended up injured. As the WSJ story states:

“The recipe for the disastrous decision by United Airlines’ employees to call for police to remove a passenger from a fully booked flight was years in the making.”

The story covers many other aspects of the event most of which stem from United’s “rules-based culture where its 85,000 employees are reluctant to make choices not in the ‘book,’ according to former airline executives, current employees and people close to United.”

“People close to the company said it could have been avoided. At least some decisions that led to the crisis were fueled by employees following rules, which are endemic to big, long-lived airlines and amount to giant manuals.”

The story also notes that the flight crew who needed to board were delayed by a mechanical problem on an earlier flight and arrived at the gate after the passengers had boarded. There were other factors including corporate changes from United’s merger with Continental Airlines seven years earlier. If any of those preceding events had not occurred or happened differently the incident on flight 3411 might never have happened.

The WSJ story neither assigned nor removed blame. Like an accident report it examined cause and factors led to the event.

Like Mixing a Martini

It’s easy and natural to look for villains. We all tend to do that and there’s usually plenty of blame to go around. But if we stick with that in our news consumption we don’t gain any understanding. We merely just hang out with it until the next trending story grabs our attention.

The idea of the accident chain can guide you to look for cause and not just blame on your way to understanding the news. Like the news martini we blogged about earlier, it sounds easy enough to do but it’s hard to get right. It takes practice, effort and occasionally an actual martini.