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Transport Official Laments "If it Scares, it Airs" Mentality

"To be persuasive, we must be believable. To be believable, we must be credible. To be credible, we must be truthful."

That was CBS great Edward R. Murrow speaking about his philosophy of journalism. But the famous quote also encapsulates the philosophy of the National Transportation Safety Board, according to its new chairman, Deborah Hersman.

In a speech to the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Hersman, a five-year veteran of the NTSB, offered some keen insights into how the Board deals with the media and how the media covers the plane crashes and other major transportation accidents that her agency is charged with investigating.

"We release factual information without analysis or interpretation," Hersman said simply. And she is right. As those of us in the media who regularly cover the transportation beat well know, it is exceedingly rare that an NTSB official will pass on information that later turns out to be untrue.

They may frustratingly demure when pressed to speculate on the possible cause of a plane crash in the early hours of an investigation, but they do not pass on bad information.

As for those who do not regularly cover the beat, the chairman offered some thoughts about them -- or at least some of them: "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." One such reporter, Hersman said, once asked an NTSB official, "Who makes 747s besides Boeing?" Another asked, "Who was steering the train?"

Hersman also bemoaned the "competitive fervor" which she said has led to an "If it scares, it airs" media mentality, citing the September 11th fiasco involving a Coast Guard drill on the Potomac which CNN mistakenly reported as an armed encounter with a suspicious vessel.

"And don't get me started about Balloon Boy," she added, eliciting knowing laughter from the audience of reporters.

"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?" Hersman asked. The answer, of course, is a very high cost indeed.

Carter Yang is a CBS News producer based in Washington, D.C.

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