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Lion Air Crash: How the BBC changed its mind

Bryan Edwards

Any aeroplane crash is newsworthy. Media organisations, bloggers and opportunists race to publish anything, just so long as it gets picked up by major search engines within minutes. Even venerable reporting organisations fall into the trap of just getting something, anything onto their website so they don't seem to be behind. Grabbing eyeballs is the primary objective. But as the BBC found out yesterday, sometimes that rush to publish leads to questionable content....

The content in question is a statement in an article about the crash of Lion Air JT601 by a person contacted by the BBC to give comment. He was quoted as saying, in effect, that the Boeing 737 Max range had a significant defect. He did not relate that allegation to the crash of the two months-old Lion Air B737 Max 8 in the early hours of the morning Jakarta time.

Here is the original version of the page.

When PleaseBeInformed.com read that, it seemed to be a startling statement. The B737 Max series is Boeing's A320 killer, designed specifically to undermine Airbus's dominance in the short-haul budget airline business. It's Boeing's fastest selling aircraft. Ever. And it's only been in production for little over two years. Surely, if there was a systemic fault across the production run, there would have been much fuss and it would have come to our attention, even if only in passing. So we fact-checked. To be fair, we didn't do any deep examination but that was for the simple reason that the only systemic reported problem we found related to allegations that the engines were not as efficient as claimed and that sales data was therefore, let's be polite, misleading.

But as to any problem at all with the instruments and controls relating to height? Nothing came up in the first few pages of an internet search. True, the first page of any search these days is filled with crud and the good stuff rarely starts before page three but even so, we found nothing to support that claim. We also searched the USA's National Transportation (sic) Safety Board's website. As we already knew, the B737 has been involved in many incidents, However, none related to the B737 MAX range. Similarly, the USA's Federal Aviation Administration, which is very strict about fault reporting, had nothing relating to modifications the aircraft's homologation in any material way.

While we were fact-checking, the BBC changed its report.

There was no indication that the report had been modified (in media speak "updated").

Later, another quote appeared from the same interviewee in another article, this time being rather superficial and non-committal and certainly not repeating the previously reported comment.

Rapid reporting of unverified "facts" is a dangerous practice made worse by the tendency of secondary reporting (we are being nice - it's either plagiarism or one step removed from it by copying extracts from multiple articles and presenting them as one's own work) which piggy-backs in the rapid release news in order to gain its own high ranking in search engines. While the BBC appears to have, albeit belatedly, realised its error those organisations that have picked up what appeared to be the juiciest part of the report are unlikely to go back and see if it's still there. As a result, that comment can freely spread across the web, gaining traction and credibility as it goes, even though its value is, at best, uncertain.

There are subsequent reports that the BBC has seen a maintenance record for the aircraft's previous flight where it was reported that there were instrumentation problems, in particular that the Captain's and the Co-Pilot's airspeed indicators were giving different readings. There is also a report by a journalist who was on the aircraft's previous flight out of Denpasar, Bali, the evening before. She said that conditions on the aircraft were poor even before take-off with the engines apparently going on and off and the cabin air not working. She said that the floor was hot and some children were vomiting. As yet, none of that has been independently verified and therefore no conclusions should be drawn from it.

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