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Podcast: Reporting on Plane Crashes

With the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 dominating the headlines this week, ProPublica Senior Editor Joe Sexton joins Steve Engelberg to talk about the difficulties of reporting on news that shifts with each passing hour.

In particular, Engelberg and Sexton, who covered their share of plane crash investigations in previous jobs at The New York Times, recall the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island shortly after takeoff in 1996. There was the round-the-clock reporting, of course – Sexton tells of interviewing federal investigators from a phone booth while supervising his daughter’s ninth birthday party at the beach – but also the ever-evolving theory of what brought the plane down.

Covering a story with so many unknowns, Engelberg says, makes for tough reporting: Even the discovery of the explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate on TWA Flight 800 proved tricky. After announcing the finding as evidence of a bomb, authorities later revealed that PETN had actually been sprinkled on the rugs years earlier as part of a test for bomb sniffing dogs.

In Sexton’s mind, that episode “has colored a lot of reporting of late – whether it’ a terror investigation in Boston or an anthrax attack in Connecticut,” he says. “There’s a fundamental tension for reporters: Can you best reflect what investigators in any particular case think is the best, most likely answer, and is there an obligation to report that?” And moreover, “If they ultimately then turn out to be wrong, is that the reporter’s fault for reporting it?”

Engelberg agrees, saying the burden amounts to, “Are we expected to be fair, accurate and prescient?” But, he says, “If I had it all to do again – and I was one of the people who edited that PETN story, the first one – I would wish that we had played it more conservatively.”

There is value in reporting the news as it breaks, he says, but “we’re also not stenographers. And I think we want to listen to that little voice that says, well now, wait a minute: Do they really know this? Have they really presented evidence that’s compelling?”

For his part, Sexton remains unconvinced: “Journalists, who do a very good job at many things -- not the least of which is beating themselves up publicly about their work – I think have sometimes taken an unfair beating over those kinds of questions.”

You can hear this podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher.

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