Tara Lynn Johnson

Writer – Photographer – Tea Drinker

Reporting Amtrak #188

It’s been a media-saturated week in Philadelphia as the city experienced then began to recover from Amtrak #188’s derailment last Tuesday. It’s a sad story made worse by the revelation that if the safety technology had been installed on the rails, this accident wouldn’t have happened. I’m glad they’ll get that technology installed as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it’s too late for the families that lost loved ones. It’s also a shame that the media covering this tragedy acted the way they did, and sadly, it’s the way they do things these days (and for some time now).

That’s why, out of all of the goings-on surrounding this event, I am most impressed with National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident spokesperson Robert Sumwalt. I never liked the way microphones get shoved into people’s faces and sensitive questions are asked too soon or inappropriately in events like this. He would have none of that. Rather than letting the members of the media yelp over each other like puppies begging for treats, he set them straight before they even began: he told them to raise their hands so he could call on them; and he asked them to state their names, affiliations, and questions. He also stressed immediately that he wouldn’t speculate, that the NTSB was there to gather facts. I especially appreciated the way he even shut down Anderson Cooper, who asked him to hypothesize a cause after hurrying to Philly to offer his concerned face reports from the derailment scene.


Of course I’m not questioning the media being in Philadelphia and telling the story. But I do wonder why they tell it the way they do, with all the speculation from “experts,” for instance. I wonder why cable news can’t find more real news, i.e., reporting, not trying to guess the outcome of events, investigations, etc., to fill their many hours. The world is large. There is so much going on. They could do so much more with the powerful tools they possess. (Some broadcast and print reporters do, but I bet most people don’t know their names.)

Is this story newsworthy? Most definitely. Is it important to tell it as well as those of the people who were on the train? Absolutely.

Does it need to be done with speculation? No.

Does it need to be discussed with helicopters hovering overhead (but none offering to light the darkened scene until they were asked to by first responders)? No. A quick break-in alerting viewers of whatever station they were watching that there was a train derailment would have sufficed. (And as for the light, reporters should remember: human first, then journalist.)

Does it need to be discussed for hours on end with anchors and reporters telling each other that neither has details, but still they keep talking over a horrific shot of a mangled train car? No. And that especially doesn’t need to happen with one local anchor repeatedly calling it a plane until she questioned her silent-to-us producer on air (“What do I keep saying? Plane? I’m sorry, it’s a train”).

And do reporters need to act like sharks responding to chum in the water? Absolutely not.


The trains again are running on those recently mangled rails. Most of the out-of-town media is gone. The “story” has been replaced with other speculation and punditry on cable and with crime and other bad news locally. The rest of the derailment facts will come out, in time. That probably won’t get quite as much coverage as the original incident, though. The picture of papers in a report isn’t as interesting, plus the reporters won’t be falling over each other to try to be first — they’ll all get the info around the same time.

Sending good thoughts and hoping that safety is improved sooner rather than later. Thinking of the victims still recovering and those who lost their lives.

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1 Comment

  1. Lynda Johnson

    Well stated. Thank you.

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