Communication Currents

Why does it matter if the media say an aviation accident is due to the weather or the pilot?

December 1, 2012
Mass Communication

The plane crash of Polish Air Force TU-154 near the city of Smolensk, Russia in 2010 killed 96 people on board including the Polish president and a number of government officials. Investigations revealed the immediate cause of the accident was that the crew ignored TAWS (Terrain Awareness and Warning System) warnings and attempted to land, and a contributing factor was the poor weather. The media reported the event under headlines such as “Crew error led to Polish plane crash, Russians conclude,” “No terror, blast caused Polish president’s plane crash.” These headlines show the ways in which the news media describe an event by suggesting the causes of the event.

What are the media doing?

Numerous events of aviation accidents are reported in the news media, and the cause of the event is often identified in the headline, although multiple factors could have contributed to the event, including pilot error, mechanical failure, weather, sabotage or terror, and other causes. Some of these causes are internal in that the airline organization or the crew are responsible, whereas other causes are external in that they are beyond their control (e.g., weather). The media selectively highlight some causes as well as selectively choose events for which a particular cause is evident. A normative practice in journalism is to exemplify an issue by choosing specific events and to attribute the issue to an internal or an external cause based on explanations for why the event happened.

Why is this a problem?

Specific exemplars of an event may lead to generalized perceptions about the issue. By reporting on exemplars for weather-related aviation accidents, the public will tend to view aviation accidents as an uncontrollable event, in general, for which the airline industry is less responsible. However, by focusing on exemplars for human-error-related aviation accidents, the public will view aviation accidents as a more controllable event, for which the airline industry is responsible. This judgment of responsibility could lead to intentions to punitive opinions. Exemplars in the media are important because they have stronger impact on audiences than statistics, and exemplars have longer-term effects than statistics. Research suggests that exemplification effects are observed for more than two weeks.

The role of exemplification in the public’s perceptions of events or issues is certainly not limited to aviation accidents. For example, poverty may not necessarily be due to laziness or lack of effort; instead it may be due to poor health, bad economy, or other social factors. In addition, obesity may be due to overeating or physical inactivity, but it may also be due to genes or hereditary factors as well as social structural factors. However, media reports on poverty or obesity may represent personal exemplars that are more relevant to causes that are under the person’s control or those that are beyond one’s control. These exemplars may affect the public’s generalized perceptions about the issues. For example, a disproportionately large amount of exposure to exemplars regarding poor individuals who are lazy or obese people who are physically inactive can distort the public’s attributions about poverty or obesity and lead to punitive rather than supportive opinions. Similarly, exposure to messages about a particular cause of aviation accidents can result in generalized perceptions about aviation accidents in that they are primarily due to uncontrollable causes (e.g., weather) or controllable causes (e.g., pilot error). These perceptions are important because they can lead to judgments of responsibility, blame, and punitive opinions, such as opinions that the industry should be regulated or fined.  

What should journalists do?

Journalists and media practitioners should be cautious when dealing with exemplars of an event. The exemplars should not be selective; instead they may reflect or be consistent with the statistics that are based on the population or represent the population. Selective misrepresentations of an event may bias the public’s perceptions about the event. Although it is unethical to manipulate the statistics, it is not necessarily unethical to selectively choose exemplars in the news. However, given the important role of exemplars in the news media, often more powerful than the statistics, journalists should pay more attention to the use of exemplars.

What can you do?

The readers or viewers can be more active. The impact of exemplars in the media on the public’s perceptions would be reduced through their critical reception of media exemplars, which may be enhanced based on media literacy education. Media literacy is defined as the ability to critically read or view media messages and aims to enhance criticism by increasing knowledge of the media and awareness of their influence. There have been numerous education programs on topics such as violence, sex, and body image and eating, and now media literacy education programs may include “exemplification literacy” in their curriculum. Audiences could be advised to refer to statistical information that is more representative of the population than exemplifying information that has been selectively chosen by the journalist.

About the author (s)

Yoori Hwang

Myongi University

Assistant Professor

Se-Hoon Jeong

Korea University

Assistant Professor