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Speech at the National Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon, Washington, DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
National Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon, Washington, DC

Good afternoon.  Thank you very much for inviting me to speak here today.  You know, I’ve been working in Washington for 17 years, mostly on Capitol Hill before my 5 years at the NTSB, and this opportunity to speak at the National Press Club is a real honor.

I am here representing my fellow Board Members, Vice Chairman Chris Hart and Member Robert Sumwalt and the 391 men and women of the NTSB.  Today, I am joined by three of our staff and I’d like to take a minute to tell you about these public servants who are the backbone of the NTSB.  Susan Stevenson has been with the Safety Board since 1975 and is now an Information Specialist in Records Management.  She handles requests for information from family members, industry, and the media to name a few.  President Obama has committed to making his administration the most transparent in history, and while the NTSB is an independent agency, I believe our long  history of open and visible investigations is consistent with the President’s commitment to transparency.  To that end, this year we have begun posting our public dockets to the NTSB website, Susan has been instrumental in this effort which I believe will make your jobs much easier.  Currently a plan is underway to digitize the NTSB's accident docket microfiche of accidents from 1978 to 1995. Susan will lead this endeavor.

Ed Dobranetski is a professional engineer with graduate level degrees in Civil Engineering.  He spent 20 years working for several railroads before coming to the Safety Board.  He’s been with the Board over 23 years and has been involved in over 50 major investigations including several significant local accidents.  In Chase, Maryland, in 1987 there was a collision between an Amtrak passenger train and a Conrail freight train which killed 16 people.  You may remember the Conrail engineer tested positive for marijuana and that accident was the catalyst for Congress passing sweeping legislation addressing random drug and alcohol testing a few years later.  Ed also worked the 11-fatal 1996 MARC-Amtrak Silver Spring accident that resulted in improved rail car crashworthiness standards.  Since I have been at the Board, Ed has led two investigations on Metro’s Red Line (which he rides on his commute to work); in 2004 he led the investigation into the rollback at Woodley Park and most recently you might recognize him as our Investigator in Charge of the June 2009, Fort Totten Metro accident. 

Finally, I’d like to introduce you to Erin Gormley, who has been with the Safety Board since 1995.  Erin is an aerospace engineer specializing in flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders.  She served as Flight Data Recorder Group Chairman for numerous domestic and foreign investigations including Alaska Airlines flight 261 off the coast of California, the Air Midwest Beech 1900 accident in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the PHI Sikorsky S-76 accident in Louisiana in January of this year.  Erin also worked on the flight data recorder from United Airlines Flight 93 in support of the FBI's investigation into the September 11th terrorist attacks.  Most recently she served as the Acting Chief of the Vehicle Recorder Division.  Erin is active with Women in Aviation and the International Society of Air Safety Investigators and is a licensed private pilot.   

These are just a few of  the career employees who have built the reputation of the Safety Board over their years of service and our credibility is a direct result of their efforts.  Ted Lopatkiewicz, Bridget Serchak and Peter Knudson of our press team are in the audience, can you stand up with Susan, Ed and Erin, please join me in recognizing these unsung heroes for the work they do.

As you know, the NTSB has been investigating major transportation accidents for more than 42 years, and in that time we’ve held thousands of press briefings near the accident scenes.  I appreciate this opportunity to meet with journalists outside the atmosphere of a major transportation accident.  I look forward to discussing the NTSB’s processes and answering your questions today, and trust that when I conclude my remarks you’ll have a better understanding of my agency and our relationship with the news media and the public that we both serve. 

I am often asked about how I feel about working with the press.  I have to say, in the beginning, it was quite intimidating to stand in front of a bank of 20 microphones in a room full of cameras with reporters firing questions at me.  After accompanying our teams to 17 major accidents over the last 5 years, I’ve had the opportunity to see our staff and the press corps in action, so I will share a few of my observations with you.  Of course all of our beat reporters are top notch, but occasionally we encounter reporters at the accident scene who don’t routinely cover transportation issues and have the – how shall I say it – don’t have a full grasp of the subject matter.

Some of the favorite questions our people have received while on scene were:

  • “Who makes 747s besides Boeing?”
  • “What kinds of planes make those white lines in the sky?”
  • Or, how about, “Who was steering the train?”

We like to say that there are no stupid questions, just stupid answers, but to be frank, we don’t have the luxury of having only “transportation experts” cover our work. We generally see many reporters who are expected to be the jack of all trades and master of none.  Since coming to the Board I have been impressed with the local reporters who are charged with covering everything from sports to snowstorms to crash sites.  These reporters are very good surrogates for the public who, although they rely on our transportation system every day, often have a limited understanding of how it operates and how safe it is.  Despite this lack of background in the subject area, all of these reporters want to get the story right.  They still ask tough questions, but I have to say that it does help both for them and for our purposes to have some beat reporters there to get the discussion back on track and really focused on the issues that are central to the accident investigation.

 I speak here at an interesting time for the business of journalism, not because tomorrow is the 275th anniversary of the arrest of John Peter Zenger for libel – a case that is still celebrated as a landmark for freedom of speech.  And not because we can now get our local TV news in high definition.   And not even because Rush Limbaugh wanted to buy an NFL franchise.  No, these are interesting times – in the proverbial sense – because just as many American businesses are restructuring, so are our nation’s news media.  We read of layoffs in the newspaper industry, and even in the lucrative format of television, every month.  The venerable New York Times is in the process of paring 100 positions from its newsroom.  Down Pennsylvania Avenue is the Newseum, a museum dedicated to the First Amendment.  There is an exhibit consisting of a stack of newspapers about 3 feet high representing all of the daily papers that have folded in the last year or two.  It is estimated that one fourth of the newspaper jobs that existed in 2001 have vanished.  It used to be an insult to point out that a community was a “one newspaper town.”  Now, there are some communities that are nostalgic for days when they had a newspaper.  I know I don’t need to outline these grim facts for the professionals in the room – you feel this pressure on a daily basis.  Other industries are just hanging on hoping that our 10% unemployment numbers are going to trend downward as soon as the economy recovers, but you might not feel such optimism.   Conversely, new media forms are popping up every year, with Facebook now giving way to Twitter. 

Broadcast television news programs continue to lose viewers, and those that are hanging around tend to skew a little older than the networks would like.  Cable news channels seem to have two very different business plans.  During the daytime, they will air anything that moves – car chases, houses burning in the woods, “lockdowns” at schools or shopping malls, cats in trees.  They can spend hours on stories like that, and the insignificance of the events is such that you never see it in the newspaper the next day, or even referenced on the same cable channels.   

However, at night, the cable news channels are populated by what is termed as “appointment television” – those opinion programs with larger-than-life hosts.  In contrast to what they consider breaking news during the day, you better have a pretty big news event to interrupt one of those shows at night.   As we saw with this month’s election night coverage, you see very little at night in the way of on-going news on these networks.

Competition is nothing new in journalism.  In the old days, newspaper wars were not uncommon.  Now that competitive fervor has moved to cable news, where “If it bleeds, it leads” has morphed into “If it scares, it airs.”  Can we forget the frenzy this past September 11 involving the Coast Guard’s drill on the Potomac?

And don’t get me started about Balloon Boy.

It used to be that the most prestigious measure for newspaper reporters’ work was how many times their articles appeared on the front page.  Now, it is whether an article is the most emailed story of the day.  At the New York Times DC bureau, what used to be the reception area is now a studio from which print reporters produce webcasts.  And earlier this year, the St. Petersburg Times won the first Pulitzer Prize that was based solely on web-based reporting, for Politifact.  By the way, the Times’ Bill Adair, who used to be one of our beat reporters, was on that prize-winning team.  According to a recent Gallup poll, 31 percent of Americans consider the Internet to be a daily news source.  In another poll taken after the recent death of Walter Cronkite – once known as the most trusted man in America – 44 percent felt that the most trusted newsperson is…Jon Stewart.

This has created great financial pressures on traditional media outlets.  After all, news is a business, and business owners must adapt  their businesses as they see fit.  Let me just say that after all the changes I’ve described, I do not believe our freedom of the press is eroding.  I believe it is undergoing a change in its dissemination system and it has the potential to emerge stronger and more vibrant.  However, the “professional” journalist must be a part of that transformation; we are counting on you to represent the public interest as we continue to enjoy the fruits of an open society.  My specific concern here today is how this new landscape affects our ability as a federal agency to get the information out to the public and to assure the accuracy and quality of that information as disseminated by the news media.

I have been Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board for almost 4 months, and while statistically this hasn’t been a particularly bad year for transportation safety in a historical context, each day more than 100 Americans die in a transportation accident, mostly on our nation’s highways.   Often these individual tragedies are reported in a local newspaper or on local TV, but if it doesn’t involve someone famous or someone that we know personally, for the most part, we are oblivious to the death toll on our roadways.  Every now and then, we are stunned to hear of a mass casualty event, like this year’s crash of a Colgan Air plane near Buffalo that took 50 lives.  The larger accidents do capture the public’s attention, especially the large air carrier events.  But every day, somewhere in the United States, NTSB air, rail, highway, marine and hazmat investigators are on the scenes of transportation accidents, trying to find out what went wrong so they don’t happen again.  It is that second part that is the essence of what the NTSB is all about, doing what we can so that accidents don’t happen again.

Yet, even though transportation is becoming more technical and complex, the cadre of journalists dedicated to transportation continues to recede.  The broadcast networks still have reporters well steeped in transportation, although they also hold down other responsibilities.  And the major national newspapers still have transportation beats, but aside from the trade press, we can count reporters knowledgeable on the subject of transportation safety on the fingers of our hands.  Increasingly, shrinking budgets preclude the networks and newspapers from even sending their national reporters to our public hearings and meetings, and more recently even to the scenes of accidents.

What does this mean for us at the NTSB?  For one thing, many more questions like the ones I opened my speech with.  But more fundamentally, with all the upheaval in the news media over the decades, one thing that hasn’t changed is how we at the NTSB deal with releasing information during our investigations.  Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had to adapt to the changing information age like anyone else – the public’s appetite and expectations for information have changed dramatically since the days of the Great Society, when the NTSB was formed.

But our basic philosophy, that more information is better than less, has not changed in our 42 years.  As most of you are well aware, the NTSB has no regulatory authority.  It has been said that we “regulate by the raised eyebrow.”  The safety recommendations we issue, based on our forensic investigative findings, are our most important product.  But for our recommendations to carry any weight, recipients must have faith in the logic that leads to those recommendations.  The recipients and the public need to appreciate the scientific foundation and the independent nature of our investigations.

Our independence was guaranteed in the mid-1970s, when what was perceived to be Watergate-era interference into our operations prompted Congress to remove us from the Department of Transportation, which had some funding authority over us up until that time.  Looking at it now, it is surprising that it was ever thought to be a viable scheme to have DOT exercise purse string authority over an agency that in essence investigates DOT agencies.

In any case, I would argue that it is not just the recipients of our recommendations who need to appreciate the science behind our findings; by and large, they agree with our recommended actions, but may be constrained to implement them because they must consider factors other than safety in their decision-making processes.  Major changes in the regulatory structure of an industry sometimes require societal or budgetary choices.  Is there the will for the new funding required or for the new procedures we’ll all have to follow?  Because the NTSB is a taxpayer-funded organization charged with improving transportation safety, the American people have more than just a right to be briefed on the progress of our investigations.  The public and those in the position to officially react to our findings have a need to be briefed on our work if we are going to address the more difficult issues our investigations uncover.

A former President once said:  “In a democracy, the public has a right to know not only what the government decides, but why and by what process.”

So the question is, how do we provide that information responsibly?  In a major accident, I, or one of my colleagues on the Board, will accompany the Go Team for the sole and vital purpose of speaking to the press and public during the on-scene phase of the investigation.  We do that primarily through formal press briefings, and here is one area where we’ve adapted to the changing media world.  Up until the late 1980s or early 1990s, the NTSB would conduct one major press briefing a day, and that would be in the evening after our progress meeting with all the investigators.  This meant we wouldn’t release information until 9pm, which had the practical effect of being much later for much of the media if the accident was in one of the western time zones.  The next press briefing would be 24 hours later. 

Can you imagine if we still held to such a schedule?  A full day of cable news and constant newspaper website deadlines left to the speculation of talking heads, of former industry experts or even former government investigators, none of whom have any direct knowledge of the progress of the investigation. 

In the five years since I have been at the Board, I can tell you that our cycle for briefing the media has adapted to the demands and needs of a public who are constantly hungry for more information and new details.  At a major accident you will now see two press briefings a day.  We may still have one in the evening, but more and more, with cell phones and blackberries, our investigators are making an effort to provide information in real time.  As we compile information throughout the day, with some coordination we are able to conduct briefings earlier.  Typically our days start at 6am (on the West Coast that means 3am) with the morning shows, some taping and some live feeds for local and national programs and then two more press conferences throughout the day.  Balance these demands with our desire to brief the victims’ families before the news media and you can see that it is challenging to constantly be pushing out new information on short notice.  Although we prefer to schedule briefings when we have significant new information to release, we recognize that providing availability more regularly serves as a pressure valve for reporters to give them the opportunity to ask questions that have built up since the last press event. 

While the media environment is changing, there is something that never seems to change.  At the Safety Board, we call it the “cause du jour.”  You’ve all seen these after major accidents.  The first day all the coverage surrounds the aircraft model, and we hear about an emergency landing a similar plane had 3 weeks ago.  The next day, the engines are in the bulls eye, and we get an accounting of 4 engine fires on this very model around the world in the last 2 years.  The third day, it is the pilot.  After all, while her neighbors say that she was a very responsible person, sources say that she failed her first check ride at a commuter airline 7 years ago.  And on it goes.

Yes, some of this is based on information we put out, but it mostly results from people’s need for a narrative.  It seems that in today’s world, although the accident happened a mere 36 hours ago, surely we should know what caused it by now.

So what kind of information do we put out?  We release factual information without analysis or interpretation.  This would be information that is not subject to change, except in some minor ways.  For example, a train engineer’s years of service, an airframe or engine’s cycles, the time a takeoff clearance is given – these facts should not change as the investigation progresses. 

Yes, if we put out raw data without interpretation, this opens the door for others to provide their interpretation.  There is nothing we can do about that in an open society, and I hope that most readers or listeners will be able to differentiate between what the official investigators are saying about an accident and what observers are opining.

On aviation cases, we never release the audio from a cockpit voice recorder, because it is prohibited by law, and we don’t even release a transcript of what is contained on that recorder until a public hearing takes place or the majority of the factual reports are completed and the docket is opened – this is usually months after the accident – and then only when that portion of the transcript is relevant to the investigation.  However, we will characterize certain information learned from the CVR.  If the flight crew is discussing what appears to be a flap asymmetry or rudder problem, we will say that the crew was discussing a control problem.   We don’t release personal information on people; in fact, during our post-accident press conferences, we don’t release names of anyone involved in an accident, we simply refer to them as the pilot, the engineer, the air traffic controller, the bus driver or a passenger.

How does our process compare with other countries?  I think it’s safe to say that no other country in the world has as open an information policy on accident investigations as does the United States.  It is not a coincidence that those countries with generally open information policies also have fairly high levels of safety.  While there will always be differences around the world about how best to manage the dissemination of information, I’m happy to say that we do have some of our foreign counterparts attending courses on our media procedures at our Training Center in Ashburn, Virginia.  That being said, you will not be surprised to learn that many of our foreign counterparts think that we give out too much information during our investigations.  We will always have differences because sovereign countries have their own laws, traditions and cultural values.  At the heart of our process is the fact that we publish the underpinnings of our accident investigations so the public can scrutinize just how strong the foundation is on which our ultimate findings stand.

We must also acknowledge that some of the reluctance in other countries to discuss investigative findings might be based on the fact that there is more judicial involvement in accident investigations overseas.  We were very fortunate that when the Congress set up the Safety Board, they placed discovering the cause of accidents and identifying needed safety improvements as the highest priority.  While law enforcement authorities occasionally exhibit interest in looking into the circumstances of accidents in this country, it has been a very rare situation when criminal investigations have interfered with an NTSB investigation.

I don’t want to leave the impression that our domestic transportation companies and manufacturers are completely sanguine about our information release procedure.  They just know that there appears to be strong public support for the NTSB’s current practice.   Just a few weeks ago the Air Line Pilots Association took issue with our release of information from our interviews with the Northwest pilots who overshot Minneapolis.  ALPA claimed this would have a chilling effect on voluntary pilot reports.  While the Safety Board strongly supports the various voluntary reporting systems in the aviation industry, this was an incident investigation handled under our procedures.  By the time we released the pilots’ accounts, 5 days had passed and the media were swimming in many unfounded rumors about the event.

Before I close, let me catch you up on a few of our major investigations.  The early part of 2010 already looks quite busy for the NTSB, even while we acknowledge that we never really know what is in store for us.  In January, the Safety Board will meet to adopt a final report on the September 2008 train collision in Chatsworth, California that killed 25 people.  In February, we’ll meet to adopt a final report on the Colgan crash near Buffalo, and later in the month we’ll hold a two-day public hearing on issues raised in the Metrorail collision that occurred here in Washington in June.  In addition to looking at the circumstances of the crash itself, we will also explore federal and state oversight of the nation’s rail transit systems.

In closing, let me quote one of the icons of American journalism, who was speaking of his profession, but I believe it also encapsulates the NTSB’s philosophy of openness.  Edward R. Murrow famously said, “To be persuasive, we must be believable.  To be believable, we must be credible.  To be credible, we must be truthful.”  Speaking for the NTSB, let me say that we will continue to be truthful, because we must continue to be credible, so that our safety recommendations will be persuasive, which we believe will save lives.  As is true for journalists,  our credibility is our currency and stock in trade.  We will continue to conduct accident investigations in as transparent a nature as possible, because if we cannot persuade the transportation industry or industry regulators to change things after an accident, then we have failed in our mission.

We understand the need to solve the puzzle in the early hours of an accident, and we know your editors and producers want you to be the first to get the “cause” of the accident, but what is the cost to your credibility if you are the first to get the cause wrong?  We have learned from experience that first impressions can be wrong.  Equally important, the true cause of an accident can actually be multiple causes, inextricably intertwined, and those failures line up, resulting in a tragic event.  It usually takes hundreds of news cycles to figure all of that out.  With 82 percent of our 13,000 recommendations having been implemented, I am continually amazed that after more than 40 years, our investigators still find new and important issues that need to be addressed.

I started my speech by talking about my impression of the press and how it has evolved over the years.  There is a saying that goes, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  I have come to appreciate that although a tremendous amount of staff work is dedicated to our investigations, if nobody pays attention to our recommendations, all that work will have gone for naught.  The way that we engage the public, the regulators, the policymakers and those who are personally affected by the crash is to share the lessons of what we have learned so that those lessons can be a catalyst for change.  We can’t do that without the news media.  You help frame the discussion and the issues, and you inform millions every day about transportation safety issues.

Even in this changing environment, when you are being asked to re-invent yourselves on a regular basis, I hope you continue to achieve the professional satisfaction you sought when you became a reporter.  Why did you choose your profession?  Did you want to identify the failures that need to be corrected or explore the technology that can save lives?  These motivations are why many of us are working at the NTSB, and I am as determined to uphold the proud traditions of that agency as are you committed to the institution embodied by the building in which we stand today.

Thank you for inviting me here today, thank you for listening, and most importantly, thank you for working hard to get it right and helping us make our world safer.