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Early coverage of SFO crash slow, confusing—filled with officials’ miscues

Monday, July 8, 2013

Kudos to the Chronicle and Mercury News, which rolled out early and accurate information about Saturday’s Asiana Airlines crash, often ahead of traditional electronic media. Overall, it was not the best day for TV and radio coverage, which didn’t get much help from official sources. The latter were painfully slow to provide meaningful information and—in a couple of glaring ways—got things wrong.

For at least 30 minutes after the crash reports parroted SFO officials as saying the crash involved a cargo plane, despite images of emergency chutes deployed and passengers coming away from the smoking Boeing 777 jet with the airline’s logo clearly visible.

CNN stuck with no information about the number of people aboard the plane, or casualties, long after local media were reporting both. Lots of vamping from Atlanta and London, but no one on the ground here, and seemingly no one even working the phones effectively. The aerial images and what CNN’s talking heads were saying often diverged, as in the picture of what clearly appeared to be a body covered by a sheet near the airplane’s left wing that went unmentioned by the CNN talkers. (The body of one of the two 16-year-old Chinese students who died in the crash was found near the left wing, it was later reported.)

More than two hours after the crash, lead-ins to CNN’s coverage repeatedly referred to it as having occurred “a short time ago.” They finally put political reporter Dana Bash on the phone from San Francisco—so that she could talk about being stuck in traffic on her way to the airport after visiting relatives.

(Blogger Rich Lieberman apparently did a lot of channel flipping, and has his own thoughts about how various local media fared.)

The real culprits in the painfully slow, sometimes flat-out wrong coverage appeared to rest with official sources. Most-egg-on-face award goes to San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, who went to air four hours after the tragedy to say that “upward of 60” people on the plane were unaccounted for. (It turned out to be someone’s miscalculation of how many people had been transported to hospitals.)

Not a stellar day.

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