The Plane Truth

How did bogus information about a Boulder crash wind up going national?

Ask any journalist how he or she balances the quest for scoops with the desire for accuracy and you'll probably get this answer: "It's more important to be right than first." But the game isn't always played that way in the modern world of electronic media. When disaster strikes, news consumers have been conditioned to expect immediate coverage of the carnage, and if a certain station fails to satisfy this desire, a percentage of viewers or listeners will switch channels, perhaps never to return, before the next blood droplet falls. The resulting pressure to air every tidbit of data as soon as possible opens the door to errors -- and on January 5 at Channel 9 and KOA, such a blunder strolled right in.

That afternoon, a Cessna 172K fell to earth in the vicinity of Highway 36 and Neva Road in Boulder County, killing its sole occupant, Charles Richards, 54. This sad event, which is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, was compounded by previous misfortunes that reportedly took place within the man's family: On the very day last November that a funeral was scheduled for Richards's recently deceased father, his 24-year-old son passed away. But initial accounts about the plane crash that appeared in a crawl along the bottom of TV screens tuned to Channel 9, as well as the version first heard on KOA, hinted at a tragedy of a far more extensive scale. The outlets identified the downed aircraft as a commuter jet that belonged to United Express. If such a vehicle was wrecked when filled to capacity, the casualty count could easily have run into the dozens.

Both stations corrected this slip-up in relatively short order. Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis says the graphic appeared just twice, and she adds that the piece about the incident that turned up on the station's 5 p.m. broadcast was correct. As for KOA, news director Jerry Bell points out that the muddled particulars passed along at the top of the signal's 5 p.m. newscast were amended before the update concluded -- a span of only three minutes or so, but enough time to do some damage. MSNBC, following Channel 9's lead, briefly identified the plane as part of the United Express fleet, prompting a trio of national news services to contact Denver International Airport seeking confirmation.

Had these agencies not bothered to do so, notes Amy Bourgeron, DIA's deputy manager of aviation, pandemonium might have ensued. "The potential hysteria that could have been created needlessly for someone waiting for a loved one or a friend on a United Express flight is a tremendous concern to us."

The gaffes were spawned by separate calls made to the stations by an individual or individuals who claimed to have witnessed the crash and who described the calamity in great, albeit false, detail. Channel 9's Dennis says she's not certain that personnel working in her shop on January 8 managed to get their caller's name, but KOA's Bell reveals that the man who phoned his station identified himself as "Mike Anderson" -- a name that seems suspicious in retrospect, since a Denver Broncos running back sports the same moniker. Too bad the guy didn't insist he was Terrell Davis; KOA workers might have caught on sooner.

As Bell tells it, newsroomers made a tape of the man's comments prior to calling Boulder County dispatch, which confirmed that there had indeed been a plane crash and that emergency personnel were racing to it. Granted, the dispatch staffer didn't identify the type of plane, because authorities had not yet reached the scene, but KOA was already receiving other calls from area residents who'd heard the impact, so the employees felt confident that the calamity was a hefty one. "We geared up for something much bigger than it turned out to be," Bell says. "I even ended up going up there, and I wasn't the only one. Everybody in town was mounting a large response."

Upon reaching the site, KOA reps knew instantly that the accident wasn't nearly the catastrophe they'd been led to expect, and they called back to the station to pass the word along. But by the time they did, news anchor Jim Reed had already aired the recording of "Anderson" describing a United Express craft, necessitating a hurried correction.

Unfortunately, says Boulder County spokesman James Burris, some listeners didn't catch the second notice: "When it went over KOA, the number at dispatch was ringing off the hook with people trying to get information, and we didn't have any way to say 'yes' or 'no' for a few minutes." Burris believes that "waiting ten or fifteen minutes to get a complete report from people on the scene would have prevented any misinformation from getting out over the air. But radio's an immediate medium, and people want news now."

After they found out about the flub, KOA minions dialed the number left by the mysterious caller. But it wasn't in service, leading Bell to wonder if the station had been deliberately tweaked. "Either the guy was mentally off base or had a very vivid imagination," he says. Still, he's not overly critical of Reed or his colleagues: "It's not as if somebody called out of the blue and we threw it on the air. We did make an effort to confirm the crash before we ran the tape. I don't know what more you can do in a situation like that before you can get up there and see for yourself. If you had somebody tell you that they're there, and you know there's been a plane crash, you wouldn't have any reason to doubt it."

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