None of us want to think about a member of our skydiving family getting hurt or killed, much less getting hurt or killed while skydiving. Even further down the list is having to talk to a journalist about a skydiving incident. As distasteful as it is to try to explain to a whuffo reporter why a fellow skydiver was injured or killed while jumping, though, it's actually an opportunity to improve the image of the sport.
As we well know, most journalists aren't skydivers and at best have a tough time explaining the circumstances of a skydiving incident. They often get it wrong with a common theme of "The parachute didn't open." But while it is certainly their responsibility to get the story right, they can't do it without help from the experts-which in this case is you, the skydivers who were present during an incident and are designated media contacts.
Avoidance and condemning of the media for their often poor explanation of skydiving incidents is common among skydivers, but we can do the sport far more justice by working with journalists towards a proper article than by blowing them off. It requires more effort, to be sure, but more accurate coverage of these incidents can help dispel the image of skydiving as a ruthless sport in which some participants die despite doing everything right.
Take the common statement of "The parachute failed to open," for example. This implies that the gear is at fault, when we all know that it's a very rare situation when the skydiver can do everything right and still die. Almost 100% of the time, a skydiver dies because of a primary (e.g., no pull, low pull, low turn) or secondary (incorrect response to a malfunction) mistake. The public doesn't understand this. While it might not seem important that they do, think of the number of times you are asked by non-skydiving friends and coworkers why you skydive, or hear a comment of how they can't believe you skydive, all with the overtone of why would someone want to do a sport that everyone knows will kill you. Do you get tired of that? I do.
The simple fact is that a large percentage of the non-skydiving population thinks that people who die skydiving die through no fault of their own, thus they think skydivers are a bunch of adrenaline junkies who don't care if they die skydiving. We know that's far from the truth, but when news articles don't give the whole story for long periods of time, this is the result. Additionally, it's frustrating to all of us skydivers when the story isn't right.
Following are some suggestions for dealing with the media in the event of a skydiving incident. Thankfully, most of you will never have to do this, but if you do perhaps this will help.
Send them to the source. If you are not the S&TA or other appointed drop zone media liaison, do not discuss the incident with a journalist. We all know that rumors bloom fast and furiously on drop zones, particularly in situations such as this. What began as a simple low turn by an inexperienced jumper on a smaller canopy than he was used to can quickly become an evasion of traffic, a dropped toggle, avoidance of an obstacle, etc., via the rumor mill. Whether you saw the incident or not, don't talk about it to the media and don't offer any opinions unless you're the media liaison. Refer any reporters to the S&TA or DZO, or whomever the drop zone has designated as the media contact. This person's job is no fun, but it's their responsibility to investigate the incident based on witness accounts and gear information, to prepare a complete report, and to deal with the media (and the coroner if the accident was fatal). Again, no one but the designated media contact should be talking to the media.
Don't dodge the press. We'll give chapter and verse to anyone who asks about most things related to skydiving, but when it comes to chatting with a reporter about a skydiving incident we often clam up. Why? Because we're afraid they'll get it wrong again. But if we don't give them information, we're guaranteed a minimal or misleading report of the incident. If we want these incidents to be reported accurately, the information has to come from us-the S&TA or designated media contact.
Be professional and courteous. Don't say, "You shouldn't be writing about this," because they will anyway, and this will just annoy the reporter and make it more likely that he/she will write something negative about the situation, the drop zone, and/or the sport. Also, it will burn a bridge that can be used for publicizing positive events at the drop zone such as charity events or milestones. Anytime you speak as a skydiver or skydive in front of non-skydivers, you are an ambassador for the sport whether you like it or not. Use this interaction with the media as a chance to portray skydiving accurately, and in the best light possible in a bad situation, by being honest and helpful. Avoid the "us vs. them" kind of interaction; this doesn't have to be a challenge where either you or the reporter gets their objective at the other's expense.
Think about your description beforehand. In all likelihood, reporters won't be there right away following an incident, unless it occurs during a demo. In either case, coverage of the incident will turn out better with better information, and you will be able to give better information after thinking about the incident a bit and getting it clear in your mind.
Be specific, but simple. It's pretty clear by now that I'm asking for more accurate reporting of skydiving incidents, and this isn't a problem for skydivers. What is more of a problem, especially if we're distracted by the substantial emotional impact of the incident, is that we'll talk to a reporter in the same way we'll talk to fellow skydivers-discussing things in skydiving terms rather than lay terms--if we talk to them at all. This doesn't improve the coverage, it just makes their eyes glaze over. For example, don't say "The right toggle came unstowed from the toggle tip keeper, allowing the cat's eye to come off of the loosely stowed brake and sending the canopy into a left-hand spiral to the ground," Instead, think about your audience (the general public as well as the reporter) and say, "It appears that a minor malfunction during deployment caused the parachute to spiral down, and so and so did not correct it in time to avoid the hard landing from the spiral."
Refer questions about a jump plane crash to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). It is extremely counterproductive to speculate about the cause of a jump plane crash without an investigation report. If you are asked about a jump plane crash, refer reporters to the designated NTSB public affairs officer once he/she has arrived on the scene. We don't like it when uninformed reporters speculate about the causes of skydiving accidents, and the pilot (if he survived) and his family won't appreciate uninformed speculation about the plane crash either.
Offer to review the article before publication. It's not often that you will get the opportunity to do this, but you might if you offer it. What better chance will you get to ensure that the coverage is accurate? Of course, the reporter will reserve the right to accept or reject your changes as they choose, but the chance to review the article before publication is something not to be turned down.
The relationship between skydivers and the media has not always been a good one in general, as is often the case when laymen try to describe technical pursuits. That can't be changed overnight. But things won't get better without a responsible effort from both sides, hence the two-part coverage of this topic directed to both groups. A better working relationship between skydivers and the media, both for good and not-so-good events, will benefit both of us.
If you found Part 1 of this series useful-"Skydiving Incident Reporting for Mass Media Reporters"-please feel free to copy it and give it to any media representatives (print, web, or television) whom you think would benefit from it.
Sidebar: Recommendations for Working With Police
Working with the police in the aftermath of a skydiving incident is about as much fun as dealing with the press, but there are a couple of things they should know about the investigation that will make things easier for everyone.
First of all, the gear is only to be removed from the area by the coroner, not the police or the local rigger. When the coroner gets there, the drop zone representative and hopefully a rigger should be there to help answer any gear questions.
Most policemen don't know how to investigate the gear or scene, so removing evidence (gear) hampers the ability of those skilled in accident investigation-the coroner and your S&TA, rigger, or whoever is designated to investigate-to determine what happened. If the police want to rope off the area without disturbing the scene, that's fine. But if they try to remove the gear without it being investigated by the coroner, politely advise that they will get far more information if they will wait until the coroner, along with the S&TA or rigger, can inspect the scene and the gear with them. Don't get angry with them-which is easy to do when a member of our skydiving family has died and the police and/or media seem to be handling things wrong. Anger will only introduce further tension into an already awful situation, and make it less likely that things will get handled with skydiver input.
When the coroner is finished with the gear, the police often will impound it, do whatever they need to do with it, then release it to the FAA. The FAA then will usually inspect the gear with a rigger of their choice as part of an investigation.
Working with instead of against the police can help us get better answers to a skydiver's death than a feud. Make every effort to keep things civil and helpful, and this unpleasant situation will be minimally unpleasant for all concerned.
Thanks to Randy Connell, S&TA, S/L I, AFF I, for his contributions to this article.
Christy West is a journalist and gold/silver skydiving medalist with over 1,800 jumps.