A Delta flight landing at LaGuardia Airport this morning skidded off the runway and into an embankment and fence. With only a few minor injuries, all passengers were evacuated by chute. Immediately New York’s broadcast channels went into all news mode, with reporters reporting every tiny piece of information, as well as speculation, and misdescribing the video of we were watching. Once the TV news directors had decided to cover this “Breaking News,” voices had to fill the air.
All of which reminded my husband, J., a former New York City reporter, of the following story. In the 1970s, J.’s newspaper assigned him to find out about a story an editor had heard about a charter plane carrying 40-some U.N. diplomats off for a retreat that had crashed in Pennsylvania. He called the F.A.A., whose spokesman said they had no information about a missing plane or crash, but J. was the third person who had asked about it, so they would look into it. J. called the U.N., and they didn’t know about any retreat, but they were also getting inquiries, and said they’d get back to him. No airport had any information about a charter plane departing its space. He continued to make calls, and to hear that other news organizations were also making calls, so he wrote a story about what he knew, which was mostly speculation, and the story was typeset and ready to go.
Until just before the next edition, J. was told to keep working the story, but the news editor was not running with it yet, because it was just so “iffy.” And as J. continued to make his phone calls, it all evaporated. There was no plane crash, there was no plane, there was no U.N. retreat – there was nothing.
J. was never able to trace the source of this nonexistent story. But in today’s world of “citizen journalism,” when everyone can have a blog or a Twitter account, rumors, misinformation, any information spreads quickly. Even when something unequivocally happens, like this airplane accident at LaGuardia, it’s far better for the sake of truth to not fill the air with words (like the ABC anchor saying that passengers were leaving the plane by walking on the wings, when those watching the video could clearly see they were sliding down a chute). Wait until you know something for sure, wait for confirmation from at least two sources, before repeating the latest “I just heard about...”