NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman

Who she is: Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board since 2009

What she does: Leads the team that investigates and reports transportation accidents, including plane and train crashes.

Why she does it: Part of her job is to accompany NTSB teams to major accident scenes. She’s been to 17 in the last 5 years — ranging from the collision of two Washington Metro trains at Woodley Park Station in September to the mid-air collision involving a sightseeing helicopter and single engine plane over the Hudson River that killed 9 people in August. “The goal is to be accurate,” she says.

GETTING THE STORY RIGHT

By Hope Katz Gibbs
From an article originally published by The National Press Club
November 16, 2009

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Debbie Hersman has criticized the way some members of the press cover aviation and transportation accidents.

“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,” she said.

Hersman pointed to some of the less-than-savvy questions NTSB officials have received while on scene, including, “Who makes 747s besides Boeing?” “What kinds of planes make those white lines in the sky?” and “Who was steering the train?”

She said she understands that in today’s tough journalistic climate, “we don’t have the luxury of having only transportation experts cover our work. 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.”

The question, Hersman asked, is how do we provide important accident information responsibly?

“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,” said Hersman, who joined NTSB in June 2004 and took over as its chairman in July 2009. “I appreciate this opportunity to meet with journalists outside the atmosphere of a major transportation accident … 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.”

She said that after accompanying NTSB teams to 17 major accidents in the last 5 years — ranging from the collision of two Washington Metro trains at Woodley Park Station in September to the mid-air collision involving a sightseeing helicopter and single engine plane over the Hudson River that killed 9 people in August — she said she had the opportunity to see her staff and the press corps in action.

“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 – how shall I say it – don’t have a full grasp of the subject matter.

“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.”


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