The Real Story

The Real Story

Copyright 2002, Traffic World Magazine

Don Phillips, the transportation reporter for The Washington Post, asked an interesting question the other day. "Why do newspapers and television do such a crappy job of covering transportation?"

Phillips was talking to a bunch of folks who are well acquainted with how the general press deals with stories about planes, trains, trucks and ships. His audience was the Transportation Table, a group of transportation professionals and transportation journalists who meet fortnightly to discuss the business.

He led off his talk with an example, a true conversation between him and an editor at his newspaper. An editor had changed "air speed" to just "speed." She found "air speed" to be redundant.

"I went into a simple but somewhat detailed explanation, this is the speed you are moving through the air but the air moves and therefore you have a different speed over the ground. ... She looks up at me and says, 'Would you just can the aviation jargon and tell me how fast it's going?'"

At the root of this problem is that journalists think differently than transportation people do, Phillips said.

"We in the newspaper business, the popular press and TV in particular, think out of our right brain. We are right-brain people. Feeling, concepts, things like that," he said. "Transportation is left brained. Steel and aluminum and actual movement of goods and people. It's not like politics. Politics is easy for us to cover because that too is right brain. You want to elicit feelings among people. You don't have to explain anything in any great detail."

There is an exception to the journalists' right-brain thinking: stories about safety. "I think that's because when there is something that can kill you and you are a right-brain person, you suddenly want to concentrate on it with all the might you have coming out of the left side of your brain," he said, "which is why newspapers and television tend to give huge coverage to airline crashes and train wrecks."

Lack of background knowledge among reporters is another key problem. From the audience, JoC Week Washington reporter Bob Edmonson recalled reading a newspaper story that described the derailment of "three cars behind the coal car."

"That leads me to conclude that the reporter's knowledge of railroads ended with his Lionel set," Edmonson said.

"Don't you think there is an obligation on the reporters to at least meet the industry halfway on what they do? You don't send a political reporter up to the Hill without a reasonable understanding of the fundamentals of the legislative process but you'll send a police reporter out to cover a car-train altercation at a grade crossing or a derailment somewhere," he said.

Phillips agreed and said he had advised transportation companies and government agencies to have media relations people available to put terms into plain English for reporters. "I feel for reporters who suddenly are thrown into things like train wrecks, airplane crashes, who have never covered anything like that before and it's the biggest story of their lives," he said.

And while aviation at least gets coverage of safety and business issues, other modes are nearly invisible. To newspaper and television reporters, rail means passenger trains and freight trains are things that get in the way of commuter trains. The maritime industry was ignored - except by media in port cities - until recent homeland security stories touch on it. "Barges, I don't think most newspaper people know that there are any," he said.

"Not all of this is the fault of editors or reporters. I find that CEOs and top people in transportation companies are - and I don't know how to put this any more politely - amazingly dumb when it comes to public relations," he said.