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Lessons to learn from TV/NTSB mistake with Asiana pilots' names

It was the gasp heard around the world.

An intern with the National Transportation Safety Board mistakenly “confirmed” the alleged names of pilots of the Asiana flight that crashed in San Francisco. Not only were the names fake, they were racially insensitive puns: Capt. Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk, Bang Ding Ow.

While the mistake caught the public’s attention (thanks to the video going viral), the gasp I’m referring to was from editors around the country who were counting their lucky stars that it wasn’t their intern.

Even with hindsight being 20-20, for most of us those names would not have passed the smell test. But things like that have happened to many of us – though not on such a global scale.

Both the NTSB and the station, KTVU in California, quickly apologized. In those apologies were good lessons for all of us to heed when working with interns or inexperienced journalists.

KTVU’s apology on its website acknowledged several mistakes it made in vetting the information:

“First, we never read the names out loud, phonetically sounding them out.

“Then, during our phone call to the NTSB where the person confirmed the spellings of the names, we never asked that person to give us their position with the agency. We heard this person verify the information without questioning who they were and then rushed the names on our noon newscast.”

So stop, take a step back, breathe and make sure you don’t do something stupid in the heat of the moment. No matter what platform you work in, a five-second logic check can save you.

You should always be able to answer two questions: Who said this? How do we know it? That’s skeptical editing 101. KTVU officials admitted they weren’t able to fully answer the first question. And that means they really couldn’t answer the second.

Whether working with interns and inexperienced journalists, all editors should be able to answer those questions. And they should be teaching their staffers that news and information isn’t ready for release unless they can answer them as well.

Here are some additional questions you should be asking to help hone your skeptical editing (and reporting) skills:

  1. Read it out loud. Does it sound funny? Anything seem off? (Remember the old saying: Editors need to have a dirty mind.)

  2. Check it with a colleague. Does he or she have any questions?

  3. Is the information too perfect, odd, or wild to be true – even if that makes it “a good story”?

  4. Did the person telling you give his/her name, title and contact information?

  5. Could that person be lying? (Anyone can lie, of course. But is an alarm bell going off?)

  6. Is there only one source? (Helps to deal with question 5.)

  7. What’s the source’s stake in the story? Every source has one.

  8. How else can you verify this? If you can’t and it’s not the Pentagon Papers, don’t do it.

  9. Do you wan t this to be true too much? What are your blind spots?

  10. Are there too many coincidences in the story?

  11. Are there any conflicting facts in the story? Facts that conflict with competitors’ stories? Competitors, alas, can be right.

  12. If you’re the only person in the world with this story, why are you the only person in the world with this story?

  13. Internships are an integral part of the journalism industry. It’s our job as editors to teach and coach. Being a good skeptical editor will teach your writers to be skeptical reporters.

Most journalists will tell you the times they didn’t listen to alarm bells in their heads and something embarrassing slipped through. Rarely do they tell such stories about being two minutes late but accurate. That’s when they just did their jobs.

• The column was written for Publisher's Auxiliary.

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