Jan. 22, 2004 - CBS News's recent report on the "lack of security" at general aviation airports and how it came to be offer a strong warning to pilots contacted by reporters.
The CBS report used Eagle's Nest Residential Airpark (W13) in Waynesboro, Va., to illustrate its premise - that GA airports have no government-mandated security. But in so doing, it hung both general aviation and airport manager John Trissel out to dry - something that a call to AOPA's Communications Division might have helped avoid.
CBS News didn't initially contact Trissel directly. Instead, they called the real estate agent for Eagle's Nest and said they were doing a story on living with your airplane, and that they might like to speak to the airport manager as well. Trissel's first direct contact was when the news crew showed up for the interview, which lasted 45 minutes. Trissel smartly tried to determine the nature of the story and the questions to be asked before the interview started. The CBS crew wouldn't tell him, saying they didn't want the interview to look "staged."
"I told them that we're a gated community with tire spikes at the gatehouse for protection," Trissel told AOPA. "I told them about AOPA's Airport Watch and that we'd implemented virtually all of its suggestions. I told them that I live right beside the runway and talk to the planes from my bedside, if necessary, no matter what time of night they leave, to verify who's in the aircraft." But none of that made it into the report. And Trissel ended up victimized twice - once by CBS and again by hundreds of pilots who sent him some scorching e-mails. "Almost all of the e-mailers wrote back apologizing when they had heard the full story," says Trissel.
"The first thing to remember is that most reporters do want to get the story right," said AOPA President Phil Boyer, himself a former broadcast executive. "But the second thing to remember is that they've been assigned to cover a story and may ask questions based on a preconceived idea of what that story is.
"That seems to be what happened to John Trissel," said Boyer. "In a letter responding to the criticism of his story, CBS reporter Bob Orr said his report was intended to show that the government has not ordered any security improvements at GA airports. He used answers that on their face support the premise - and in the process needlessly scared the non-flying public about 'small planes.'"
Sadly, many news stories are sensationalized to get ratings. Even worse are the advertisements or "promos" for the news story. As was the case with the CBS report, promos take the most sensational elements of the story and repeat them over and over again without any attempt to tell both sides of the story. And more people see the promo than the news story.
Dealing with reporters can be nerve-wracking even for people who do it every day for a living. It can be even more so for someone who's never been interviewed. The AOPA Communications Division has both staff and online resources that can help members facing a media interview.
If you've been contacted by a reporter and are unsure what to do, contact the AOPA Communications Division by calling either 301/695-2000 or 800/872-2672 and asking for Communications.
"Our first advice is 'send the reporter to us,'" said Boyer. "This is our bread and butter. It gives us a chance to reach out to the non-flying public through the general news media, and it takes the heat off you."
If the reporter really needs a face-to-face, on-camera or on-tape interview, then the AOPA Communications Division can offer specific advice on being interviewed.
Here are some general guidelines:
Ask what topics the reporter wants to cover in the interview. Reporters, as a rule, will not tell an interviewee what the specific questions are going to be so that the answers don't look or sound rehearsed. But they will often go over the general topics. If the reporter refuses to discuss the topics, feel free to refuse to do the interview.
Don't answer questions you don't know the answers to. "That sounds painfully obvious," said Boyer. "But there can be a real temptation to speculate or offer opinions that end up sounding like fact on the air. Don't be afraid to say you can't answer the question."
If the interview starts to stray into areas in which you're not comfortable, or if the topics are not the ones you discussed with the reporter ahead of time, don't hesitate to terminate the interview.
For television, look at the interviewer. Don't let your eyes wander about. No matter how straightforward your answer, you will appear evasive to the viewer.
And remember that the usual one- to two-minute broadcast report contains 100 to 200 words total. That means that only 15 seconds or so of your 20-minute interview will actually be used on air. And the reporter chooses which 15 seconds.
"If someone had told me what to expect, I might not have run into trouble," Trissel told AOPA. "From now on at this airport, I'll tell people we cannot do it by ourselves and suggest they call AOPA."