Carroll: Aspen plane crash exposes misinformation age
December 7, 2014
As most people hopefully know, social media is hardly a verifiable source for news. Sunday's jet crash at Aspen's Sardy Field, horrific as it was, was testament to that.
It's an undeniable tragedy when any untimely death occurs — as was the case for Sergio Emilio Carranza Brabata, the co-pilot of the Bombardier Challenger 600 that crashed on the airport's runway, flipped over and burst into flames.
The story went viral within minutes of the accident, much in part because two celebrities — Kevin Nealon and LeAnn Rimes — were at the airport, witnessed the crash and tweeted it out to the world.
Just because Nealon and Rimes are famous did not make them less qualified than a lay witness to the crash.
In fact, their accounts were somewhat more reliable than some of the misinformation flying around on Facebook:
• "No survivors. Biggest plume of black smoke I have ever seen."
• "we were also wondering about the pilot being under pressure from someone to land so they could make a lunch appointment. sad but true."
• "Third survivor died on way to AVH"
• "The word is out no survivors…."
• "No survivors…"
Nealon tweeted that "Fire truck and ambulances were on the scene within minutes. I don't believe there are any survivors." But at least he couched the statement with "I don't believe …"
As for the facts, on Monday there remained one fatality and two survivors, with the latter under the care of St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction.
Almost immediately there was some not-so-quiet criticism floating around that the crash received its high level of coverage — it led the Sunday night news on a Chicago TV station, was heavily covered by CNN, BBC and other global news agencies — because of Nealon and Rimes' eyewitness accounts on Twitter.
Maybe so, and the fact they were first-hand witnesses to this horrible scene certainly helped elevate interest in the story. We've seen traffic accidents with multiple casualties on Highways 82 and 133 attract tiny fractions of what Sunday's plane crash drew.
Yet plane crashes, like shark attacks, are rare, and the public's fascination with them — be they large or small incidents — is indisputable.
Sunday's crash, meanwhile, occurred during one of the busiest days of the year at Aspen's airport, was witnessed by numerous passengers and others, and happened across the highway from a densely populated Aspen neighborhood and business center. And yes, there was certainly the Aspen factor, which is bound to attract pop-culture followers in addition to the requisite news junkies and aviation enthusiasts.
I first caught wind of the crash when I got home from a run at around 12:40 p.m., some 17 minutes after the crash happened. During the later part of the run, I smelled an awful stench of what seemed to be burning rubber. From then on, I checked out structures along my run to see if I could find the source of the smell.
When I got home, before I could tell my wife about the smell, she reported to me there'd been a plane crash.
Back to work I was, leaving messages for the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office and other sources, as well as combing social-media sites for maybe a nugget or two of truth. And despite the avalanche of misinformation on social media, there were also strong photos of the wreckage, as well as solid leads.
Soon the sheriff called back to report the single fatality, putting the rumor mill to rest, momentarily at least.
The media often is frowned upon for what ails society. "Blame the media," as we often say in a self-deprecating fashion. If we were slower to respond to some of the details of Sunday's story than Twitter and Facebook however, we stand by it. When it comes to stories like these, patiently waiting for the facts makes for good policy, if that's at all possible in this age of instant gratification.
Rick Carroll is editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.