The New (Media) Accident Report

In Business writing, New media, Technical communication on May 26, 2013 at 1:03 am

In the wake of accidents and catastrophes, there is a vacuum waiting to be filled with facts (or rumors). At least, there used to be a vacuum. That’s because there used to be weeks or even months between an accident and the release of the official report.

But things are changing.

From Briefing to Tweeting

The Mount Vernon (Skagit River) Bridge Collapse provides a glimpse of that change.

NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman held an initial briefing May 24 regarding the bridge’s collapse, followed by a second briefing on May 25. Videos of the briefings are available on the NTSB’s YouTube channel.

NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman briefed the media

NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman briefed the media

Those types of briefings aren’t unusual. But look what happens when quotes from a briefing are distributed via the NTSB Twitter account.

NTSB published accident details via Twitter

NTSB published accident details via Twitter

Why It Matters

The primary role of an accident report is to establish facts around an incident, including detailed explanations of what happened and why. In fact, the NTSB’s Report web page states:

“Accident Reports are one of the main products of an NTSB investigation. Reports provide details about the accident, analysis of the factual data, conclusions and the probable cause of the accident, and the related safety recommendations.”

Moreover, accident reports released by government or regulatory agencies are considered by many to be the last word on what really happened because they are imbued with:

  • Credibility
  • Specificity and accuracy
  • Finality (in that the information is presented as published facts rather than initial discussions)

When we look at the NTSB tweets, we see those same qualities:

  • The official seal and prominent name of the NTSB are evident, much like they would be on the cover page of a report
  • The content appears accurate through its specificity and objectivity
  • The accident’s explanation is now published in much the same way that a PDF of the official report might be published online, which gives the incident a sense of finality or resolution

In addition to those qualities, NTSB tweets are likely more accessible (both in terms of verbiage and ability to obtain) to the average citizen than an official report.

The Bottom Line

I am not suggesting that tweets have replaced official reports. However, many readers (and even the media) may view such published comments in much the same way they would view a report.

That just may change the way society understands catastrophes, fixes responsibility, and argues over corrective action.


Emil Towner, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Business Communication at St. Cloud State University’s Herberger Business School.

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