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How to cover a plane crash: What you need to know in a hurry

NTSB crash scene

Investigators begin analyzing data from the scene of the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214. Photo: NTSB

The word comes over a police scanner, or in a flash on Twitter, or in a cable news headline: an aircraft has gone down. It is every traveler’s worst night mare, and it can be one for reporters, as well.

Today, the word came that an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 had crashed at San Francisco’s airport, killing at least two dead and leaving scores injured.

Accident information for particular types of aircraft is widely available. One source is PlaneCrashInfo.com, while the National Transportation Safety Board’s site includes a database on past crashes.

FlightView.com tracks planes while they are in the air, and its data can be used to plot points in a plane’s journey. LiveATC.net provides control tower audio between planes and traffic controllers.

Aircraft history can be found on websites for Boeing and Airbus, including images. For private planes, you can get information at the FAA’s Registry site.

3) Be wary of “safety experts.” As soon as a crash takes place, the television and radio airwaves fill up with experts who speculate about the cause of the accident. While some have solid backgrounds, others are attorneys who make their living representing victims of accidents. Every appearance and quote is another selling tool.

The "Miracle on the Hudson" splash landing in 2009. Photo: NTSB

Instead, find someone who actually has worked in the industry, especially a licensed pilot. I’ve long relied on Robert W. Mann Jr,who was among the first to diagnose a bird strike as the cause of the US Airways accident in 2009 (best known as the Miracle on the Hudson).

You can find good sources among the engineering faculty at Wichita State University, where many people who work in aviation went to school. Also check out the school’s National Institute for Aviation Research.

For other local sources, try a flight academy or community college.

4) Be respectful with family members and kind to yourself. It’s inevitable when a crash takes place that editors will want interviews with the families of the victims. If a crash took place at a nearby airport, it’s likely that the airline will set up customer service operations at an airport hotel. Airlines typically assign representatives to work with family members and address their needs.

Some family members may be willing to talk, especially because they also are in search of information. If you’re assigned to speak with them, be respectful, and remember that you’re there to report their story, not become involved in it.

I’ll be honest. The first time I visited a plane crash site, I went home and threw up. These are emotionally difficult stories to cover. Be sure to keep track of your emotions and seek counseling if you have trouble afterwards. It may be hard to sleep for weeks after, and be ready for the story to stay on your mind.

5) Look to Washington for help. In covering my first crash, I quickly learned the important role that national aviation officials play. As soon as a crash takes place, the NTSB sends a team of investigators to the site. The team holds regular news conferences as information becomes available. In interviewing them, remember that NTSB members do not speculate; they generally limit their answers to the facts at hand.

Officials at the FAA will be getting reports on the crash, and so will members of Congressional committees that oversee aviation matters, such as the House Transportation Committee’s subcommittee on aviation, and the Senate Commerce Committee’s own aviation subcommittee. Reach out to committee staff members and request to be put on email lists for any statements and updates.

About the Author

Micheline Maynard is a Reynolds Visiting Professor of Business Journalism at Arizona State, and the editor of Curbing Cars: Rethinking How We Get Around, a journalist project looking at why Americans are driving less. Watch for the Curbing Cars eBook later this spring. She's the former Detroit Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Find her on Twitter @mickimaynard and @culinarywoman.

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