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.

BLOG: Mixing A News Martini

One of our earliest and best pieces of advice for news users reminds me of something a bartender told me about mixing a martini. He said the drink is “the easiest to make and the hardest to get right.”

Our advice to “wait for it” always applies as we try to get and understand the facts especially on big news. It sounds simple enough. But it can be exceedingly difficult to do especially with the emotion/engagement and echo chamber effects of social media. It’s enough to get you to drink a few martinis. Two recent news stories show that clearly.

Right of Boom

The US cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase in early April instantly generated emotion and concern. The strike, in response to the Assad regime’s use of banned sarin gas in the country’s civil war, swiftly followed shocking images of civilian deaths from the gas. The breaking news was covered live on cable news stations and via frequent Twitter and news website updates.

There was an underlying – if unsettled – gratification that the US could take action quickly to punish reprehensible behavior. Some media coverage was nearly rapturous in praising President Trump’s decision as presidential and in admiration of the power of US forces.

But within 24 hours reports emerged that the airbase, the one used to launch the gas attack, was still in operation. Slowly and over several days the unsettled part of the reaction began to come forward as people considered the geopolitical and practical implications. Members of Congress questioned the president’s use of military action without consultation or approval, and asked what the larger plan and goal was. The story and its resulting effects are still evolving. But many of the important questions were forgotten in the immediate excited reporting of and reactions to the attack.

United 3411

Videos of the forcible removal of a passenger from a United flight from Chicago to Louisville touched off furious and still-expanding mainstream and social media outrage following the weekend event. Coverage touched on third-rail social issues including racism, victim shaming, corporate greed and police use of force. Other subjects such as airline deregulation, ticket policies, flight crew logistics and passenger rights also appeared in the coverage. There was a widespread call for a boycott of United Airlines.

The ferocity of the reaction was understandable based on the videos alone. But four days after the event there was still no full accounting of what occurred. Reports were – and in many cases remain – inaccurate, contradictory, changing, confused, and shifted to raise broader issues. The fury of public and media reaction grew in the partial presentation of facts or the absence of them.

Two facts seemed certain: A passenger was dragged forcefully from the plane by police and injured, and United’s response – its second public incident in a month — was slow, tone-deaf and laden with corporate-speak for two days after the event. People were upset.

The issue of victim shaming came up because the passenger’s local newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, reported his 2004 criminal conviction in a case that had been widely covered there when it happened. The paper’s editors explained that they would have been remiss not to acknowledge the connection with the man now a subject of international attention. But it had not adequately accounted for the possibility that other media outlets and internet readers outside the area would not know the broader local history and context. Critics called the newspaper’s story a “hatchet job.”

Time For a Drink?

Emotions run high in both stories, especially in case of United Airlines. It’s human nature to react strongly to the suffering of others. At the same time we all want to know the facts of stories with that type of emotional impact. But those stories show how difficult it can be to wait for the facts to emerge, even for journalists. It might even seem that you need to be heartlessly removed from your own humanity to follow our advice to “wait for it.” Obviously you cannot do that.

What helps though is to keep a few things in mind:

— First, you’re going to react. No question. Acknowledge and own that. When and how is up to you.

— Second, social media is intentionally designed to trigger emotional responses. It also fosters echo chambers and bubbles of perceptions so be very careful about how much you rely on reports carried there. You could say that social media is a great way to get headlines but a terrible way to get informed.

— Third, in most cases the story is not what it seems to be at first or even in a short time. The story may be better, worse, simpler, more complex or entirely different than what you first thought it was. Be careful about cementing any initial perceptions in your mind. The best you can do is to consider the facts as best as you know them right now while remaining open to changes and updates. Your understanding of the story may be affirmed or challenged.

Fourth, actively seek out information from several different reliable mainstream sources. As reporters say, “chase it down.” The mainstream media is trained to pursue and find facts. As with all professionals they’re not always right and some are better than others, but they are better at it then most of us.

Finally, take a minute, an hour, a day or a week to let the story develop, or as we’ve said in our podcasts, “let it cook” and wait for more information before reacting.

If it helps, mix up a martini. But remember, like getting your news, it’s simple to do but hard to get right.

BLOG: The Social Media Effect

We all know that social media does a lot to get us to the news. But we’re probably a lot less aware of what social media does to us and to the news.

The social media effect matters because of the huge role those services play in connecting us with news. A number of recent studies show that at least two-thirds of Americans get news from Facebook even if they don’t use it specifically to look for stories. Twitter plays a larger role among younger users and people who are already heavy news consumers. As many as three-quarters of Twitter users specifically get and follow the news there.

The Medium Is The Message

One reason we don’t think about the effects of social media is because we’re accustomed to it, even dependent on it. Another reason is that it’s not a new phenomenon as those types of effects first gained public attention more than 50 years ago.

In his 1964 book, “Understanding Media,” Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” to describe how the form in which information is delivered changes how we perceive that information. McLuhan was writing as television was still expanding and getting the type of attention and criticism now given to social media.

The Ways It Plays

The social media effect often plays out in three ways – The first, clickbait, is easy to spot. It exists to get you to click on a link to generate ad revenue for the clickbait creators. The content – things like listicles and “you won’t believe what happened next” headlines — is usually just digital junk food. But we click on it anyway. Content producers make more of it because it pays.

The second is the social media “dialect” or frequent use of provocative and sometimes inflammatory wording to grab attention. There can be so much information competing for your attention that content producers often jazz up the wording to get you to click.

The third is repetition & echo chamber. Social media needs to be fed and updated constantly. But we get numbed by seeing the same info over and over. At the same time, we feel a need for new stimulation or information. That combination can distort our perception of the impact or importance of a story.

Along with repetition you get an echo chamber where competing news outlets conflate a story and the social media reaction to that story. Outrage-provoking stories, and feel-good human interest tales are usually the biggest culprits.

“Legging-gate”

One example of that is media coverage in late March of two young girls flying on United Airlines with free passes who were denied boarding because they were wearing leggings. United and other airlines treat “non-revenue” passengers like they do employees — as representatives of the airline subject to a company dress code that doesn’t permit leggings. The girls eventually changed their clothing and took a later flight.

The scene played out in front of other passengers unaware of the free-pass policy. They quickly took to social media to express shock at the girls being denied boarding for what seemed like arbitrary and sexist reasons. Social media responded with outrage and the news media reported that accordingly. United also was awkward in its initial response. It later explained its policy and other details but the damage was done. It took nearly an entire news cycle for the media to go beyond the outrage to report the story more fully.

The point here is not United’s policy. Instead it’s how repetition and the social media echo chamber temporarily distracted news organizations from the essential job of asking questions and reporting.

Squeak and Click

Clickbait, “dialect,” and repetition & echo chamber are driven as much by human nature as the systems used to measure the success of social media. A primary metric is user engagement or how much a content producer can get you to share, comment or otherwise interact with the company. They want to trigger a reaction, and more is better.

We can shrug off the social media effect for some online information as inconsequential or passing. But it becomes significant with information we use to guide us on local and national decisions. If we just blame “the media” we become internet lab rats clicking on the social media reaction buttons to get another pellet of affirmation or outrage – but not accurate or adequate info.

Or Not

We can choose instead to become active news users and use common sense techniques we’ve mentioned before — be your own editor, crosscheck reliable sources and “wait for it.” We’ll get more value from social media, be better informed and tell news organizations what we want to see more of.

BLOG: Follow The Facts, Not The Fakes

The term “fake news” is generally understood to be bogus clickbait planted online for financial or political gain. Or so we thought.

The Trump administration earlier this year declared that any news coverage critical of the president would be labeled “fake news.” That’s without regard to the factual accuracy of an offending story. Since then use of the term has metastasized and applied to anything that doesn’t match someone’s expectations of what the story should be.

Snow Job?

It’s even been applied to the weather forecast. The National Weather Service (NWS) came under criticism for its forecasts ahead of an East Coast blizzard in mid-March. It was a substantial storm with heavy wet snow, high winds, coastal flooding and power outages.

Forecasters repeatedly stated that they were uncertain where the divide between rain, ice and snow would be. But because of the chance of icing or very heavy snowfall in urban areas the NWS took a cautious approach and stuck with the higher amounts. Accumulations turned out to be much lower than expected in the Boston, New York and Washington metro areas where some people later claimed the forecasts were hyped or manipulated as “fake news.”

A week after the storm the weather service office in Boston took the extraordinary step of releasing a statement defending its professionalism and integrity and denying it manipulated the forecast.

Follow The Facts

News users can take steps to gain more control of determining what’s real, what’s made up and what’s merely a difference in opinion. We often encourage news users to “be your own editor” by crosschecking stories in different sources, investigating questions they have about news stories and challenging their own assumptions. All of those things are included in an expression reporters use, namely, “follow the facts.”

You can do that by seeking varied and reliable news sources. Sometimes the facts may make you feel uncomfortable, anxious or in an outright state of denial. Some of them may even feel damaging or challenging to your political choices and beliefs. But you can choose to follow those facts to wherever they lead — good, bad or otherwise.

Active vs. Reactive

Making that choice comes more from a mindset than a set of steps. It involves an attitude of actively seeking out news vs. passively receiving information and reacting.

A passive consumer thinks of it as “the media said this,” or, “this official said that,” and then merely deciding whether the information is true or false based on how it affects them. An active consumer’s evaluation would be something along the lines of, “I read this story and checked it against reliable competing sources. The main facts are consistent but there are different takes on aspects of the story. I still have questions and have to look for more or updated info.”

Red Wine, Bacon,…

An example of an active approach is when we hear reports of what foods are supposed to be either good or bad for us. Some may hear it passively as instruction – eat this/don’t eat that – then decide if they want to believe it or not. An active news user tries instead to think of it not as true or false but as new information they need to investigate further, maybe ask their doctor about, then figure out if or how to use it.

…Russia and…

Another example is the continuing investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. You may remember our advice from earlier podcasts (Episode 7 – The Russia-Trump Story – Wait For It! and Episode 13- The Trump Dossier). We often say “wait for it” because the story is going to take time to develop and reach some resolution. Even after a lot of coverage so far it’s way too soon to draw any conclusions one way or the other.

…the Snow

The NWS widely released information showing the uncertainty in the blizzard forecast. But if we only saw the eye-catching snowfall estimates on TV we would have been surprised at the outcome. The next step would be to ask, “wait a minute, what happened?” That would lead us to information we may have missed that would explain the discrepancy.

An active approach takes a little more effort but it puts us as news users in control. We get to decide whether to follow the facts or be “faked” away from them.