Media and the railroads

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, May 16, 2015

From a friend: “The media reporting (especially CNN, MSNBC, NBC and ABC because CBS has been a bit more cautious talking about things they know nothing about) has been abysmal. Case in point, one reporter saying, ‘The investigators have removed the black box from the first car of the train.’ Uhhh, that would be the locomotive?”

Okay, time out. This is a familiar complaint from people who know way more than the lay person about a specialized subject, in this instance railroading. Barack Obama took a special passenger train to Washington prior to his first inauguration, and rode in a private car at the train’s end. The Washington Post said he was riding “in the caboose.” That was on the front page! I almost choked from laughter. Users of jump all over reporters who use railroad terminology incorrectly. What sort of perfection should we expect of people thrown onto stories without first knowing the ins and outs and the slang? I’m sorry, but no news organization in the world is so rich it can afford to assign a reporter to the “railroad accidents” beat.

Yup, like my friend, I saw the missteps of journalists early in the saga of Amtrak train 188’s tragic ending at Frankford Junction, Pa. When I read or hear the media doing a railroad story, I sort of turn on my automatic fact checker in the back of my mind to begin counting mistakes. But you know what? As each day went by, the reporting became more and more accurate. For instance, reporters learned about this thing called “positive train control” and began boning up on it. Some, I bet, talked to my colleague Don Philips and the editors of Trains Magazine, which published a cover story on PTC recently.

I read the Holy Trinity every day. That would be the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. By Friday of this week my brain’s automatic fact checker shut down for lack of any errors to collect. This morning on National Public Radio, Weekend Edition broadcast a very detailed piece about PTC that was quite informative and 100 percent accurate. The best reporters learn as they go and become experts on new subjects, if given enough time. The wreck of train 188 turns out to have legs, that is, staying power. The story won’t go away. At this point I think the news organizations are doing a great job, and I salute them. To my friend, I say put yourself in the other guy’s shoes.—Fred W. Frailey

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