For a few hours this morning, members of the Air Force family were holding their breath. According to CNN (and other news outlets), a C-17 transport had crashed near Wichita Falls, Texas.
Based on early news bulletins, the outlook appeared grim. Emergency crews from the surrounding area were converging on the scene, looking for wreckage of the $200 million transport. Eyewitness accounts suggested the Globemaster III crew was flying a "nap-of-the-earth" profile at the time it disappeared.
Operating at extremely low altitudes there is absolutely no margin for error. So, when the C-17 suddenly vanished from their view, local residents assumed the worst and called police, setting off news bulletins and a frantic search.
But there was only one problem with the crash report--it was completely untrue. The C-17 and its crew returned safely to Altus AFB, Oklahoma, the departure point for their low-level training mission. By that time, authorities in Texas had called off their search, unable to find to purported crash site. CNN eventually updated its account on Monday afternoon, noting that claims of the crash were "unfounded."
Still, we can only imagine what the families and colleagues of the C-17 crew endured while officials tried to sort out the conflicting reports. Early reports of a "downed plane in a pasture" near Olney, Texas quickly morphed into claims of C-17 crash, based on information from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). There must have been some anxious moments at Altus before that Globemaster III crew radioed in and confirmed that all was well.
Meanwhile, officials around Olney were still looking for the crash site. Contacted by local police, the FAA reported that an Air Force C-17 was the only aircraft near the town at the time the time of the crash report. So, the search for a missing transport continued until authorities learned that the aircraft and crew were safe. Making matters worse, officials at nearby Sheppard AFB added to the confusion by initially confirming a crash, based on claims from local law enforcement.
And, of course, CNN kept updating the news until it became clear there was no crash. In an era of 24-hour news cycles and breathless competition, the network thought it had a breaking story --and a leg up on the competition. As for notifying those family members and co-workers back at Altus, well, that was someone else's job.
During our own days in journalism school, we were constantly drilled about checking (and re-checking) facts before running with a story. All of us heard horror stories about persons who learned of a family member's death on the local news, while police or their pastor was still en route. The rule of thumb was always the same; report the event in general terms--and withhold the victims' names--until notification can be made.
While today's incident had a happy ending, that doesn't excuse sloppy or inaccurate reporting. CNN (and other news outlets) made an editorial call, based on conflicting and unverified information. There wasn't a particularly compelling reason to rush the story to air, but the network did, and blew it badly.
Unfortunately, this isn't the first time a news organization has made this type of mistake, and it won't be the last. In today's media environment, the old rules don't apply, so other families will endure what members of the Altus community experienced today; anxious, unnecessary moments of pain and dread, fueled by an over-zealous media.