Thoughts On The Ted Stevens Story

In a world saturated with instant news, the fact that 16+ hours after an airplane crash we still didn’t know whether or not former Sen. Ted Stevens had died is remarkable.

Dillingham AK
Dillingham AK

When I noted this on Twitter, the responses were immediate and predictable: the area is remote, the weather is bad. True and true.

However, if those two factors were true impediments to information flow, we would not know any details, such as the consistent (and official) reports that five people had died and that there have been “good Sams” on site since last night.

We had an amazing amount of detail, but nothing about Stevens:

Hayes said the Guard was called to the area about 20 miles north of Dillingham around 7 p.m. Monday after a passing aircraft saw the downed plane. … The National Weather Service reported rain and fog, with low clouds and limited visibility early Tuesday. Conditions ranged from visibility of about 10 miles reported at Dillingham shortly before 7 p.m. Monday to 3 miles, with rain and fog later. [Update: Anchorage Daily News, 11.54 am: “There’s less than a quarter-mile visibility and less than 100 feet of ceiling … between the clouds and the ground.” NOAA/NWS at 12.03 pm: “Visibility is occasionally reduced to less than a mile in rain and fog.”]

At least two crash victims were treated Tuesday morning by military rescuers, Guard spokeswoman Kalei Brooks Rupp said. She said a team of Good Samaritans hiked into the crash site Monday night and provided medical aid until rescuers arrived.

Reportedly, officials with radios that have more power than cellphones arrived after midnight:

The National Guard said an HC-130 and HH-60 helicopter were encountering inclement weather on the way and had difficultly navigating through Lake Clark Pass. They were still en route to the scene at about 11:30 p.m. and expected to arrive after midnight. [Update at 12.00 pm; the helicopters did not arrive until about 7.30 am.]

Why the blackout on Stevens and, reportedly, former NASA Chief Sean O’Keefe?

I totally understand the need to contact family members before the press. But not even that explanation is being reported by the National Transportation Safety Board, which confirmed five dead. And the press, bless their hearts, weren’t telling us what the NTSB said when/if asked about Stevens and O’Keefe.

Stevens was riding in a GCI corporate aircraft, en route to a GCI-owned lodge: “GCI is an Anchorage-based provider of telephone, cable TV, Internet and wireless services across the state.” This is the second crash of a GCI airplane in this area; another happened in 2002. In that crash, the pilot was killed. I expect this aspect of the story to get more attention, especially by the Alaska press.

Back And Forth Headlines

Stephen Nowers (@nowers) reminded media of the need to report rumors as uncomfirmed:

Dear media, please do not report rumors as fact. You still need to wait for confirmation. Just like in the old days.

Nevertheless, the following chronological parade of CBS headlines speaks to the  challenge to news consumers (I was fooled) who think that they’ve shared a vetted news item.

First exhibit: the CBS story on Memeorandum. Memeorandum aggregates “must-read political news and opinion” by auto-generating “a news summary every 5 minutes, drawing on experts and pundits, insiders and outsiders, media professionals and amateur bloggers.”

CBS memeorandum
CBS Headline On Memeorandum. The headline doesn't change when website editors tweak it. It reports the headline on file when indexed.

Second exhibit: I read the breaking news on TheModerateVoice and tweeted that article. The TMV post relied on the CBS story with the unequivocal headline. My “fact check” was to look at Memeorandum; my mistake was not to click on the CBS story to see if it had changed.

Media report that former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) has been killed in plane crash. #breaking

Subsequently, I clicked on the CBS story (you can see that the hyperlink, above, is “has been read purple”) and learned that CBS had backed off.

CBS Headline
The Actual CBS Headline About 10 am Pacific When I Tweeted A Post From The Moderate Voice

Third Exhibit: That’s when I began researching the story and puzzling over the timeline. I really want to know why there is such a lag. We still know nothing about the other passengers, although CBS and the Anchorage Daily News reported about a half-hour ago that three had been medevaced out this morning. KTUU says four survivors are en route to an unnamed Anchorage hospital.

CBS: Headline Again Reports Stevens Has Died

Lest you think I’m criticizing CBS for keeping the URL on the story static, I’m not! The fact that the URL has worked all morning is a refreshing change; it wasn’t that long ago that I was complaining about fixed-in-time stories.

CBS wasn’t alone in going back-and-forth with its headline. Alaska’s KTUU also flip-flopped; their first unnamed source recanted, leading to a backtrack.

KTUU provides more relevant (IMO) information in its Twitter stream than in its news story:

About 9 am:

Sen. Ted Stevens and former NASA Chief Sean O’Keefe were apparently on board plane that crashed. Condition unknown:

About 11 am (1st, 2nd):

Clarification: Dave Dittman called Channel 2 this morning saying he had received a call confirming that Sen. Stevens had died…. Continued

… After the story was published, Dittman called back saying he was concerned because the family had not yet gotten official word.

Here’s a question for KTUU: why isn’t this information included in the story online? Where is the definitive history of your reporting? On Twitter?

If I have criticism for the press, it is in the same spirit as that warning by Nowers. When a story is still rumor, don’t let your headline writers turn it into link bait by overstating what follows.

I will likely have criticism for the NTSB, but I’ll wait to see how the story unfolds.

But I think my major take-away is this: we have, in our own backyard, areas that are wild and inaccessible beyond the imagination or experience of most Americans. Perhaps the fact that this story defied modern insta-news is a deep reflection of the differences between Alaska and the lower 48.

Note: edited to correct tense inconsistencies; when this article first appeared at The Moderate Voice (the part “above” the headline analysis), there was no official confirmation of the Senator’s death.

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

3 replies on “Thoughts On The Ted Stevens Story”

your last bit says it all — having worked in Alaska media – there are many things at work here. AK is very “small town-ish” – as a journalist I have never been anywhere else where making sure I wasn’t burning bridges was key. They might not have known, might not have contacted family – press was being careful because if they weren’t it would come back to bite them (small town). Very different than the Lower 48 insta-news. I would not be surprised if they closed airspace – silly, but it is done there.
Mostly though — in parts of AK you might as well be on the moon or a mile below sea as far as access and contact. KTUU has a lot at its disposal for getting cameras there and they do not have any photos (same with the Daily News) – it is very very very remote. The “20-miles” N. of Dillingham sounds like not much – but there it is tough going.

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