Make it clear to your audience: In this tragic story NBC doesn’t, CNN does

Tech. Sgt. Marty Bettelyoun (left) and Tech. Sgt. Timothy Officer Jr. Air Force Special Operations Command

Tech. Sgt. Marty Bettelyoun (left) and Tech. Sgt. Timothy Officer Jr.  Photo: Air Force Special Operations Command

It’s a journalism basic: Make the story understandable to your audience. It’s especially important when the story involves a death.

The story involves a military training mishap this week that caused the deaths of U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Timothy A. Officer Jr. and Tech Sgt. Marty B. Bettelyoun. CNN makes the basic details clear in this report.

CNN’s reporter says the airmen died in a parachuting free fall accident. It was a part of their special forces training. The Air Force Times story on the training accident also makes clear the association between “parachute training” and “free fall” in the fatal accident.

NBC’s coverage, on the other hand, assumes everyone knows the term “free fall” is associated with a parachute training exercise.

Said the NBC report: “A two-time recipient of the Bronze Star and a father of five were killed during military free-fall training in Florida, the Air Force announced late Tuesday.”

No mention of parachute training in the NBC print or video story. The term “free fall” may describe a number of different circumstances.

“Free fall” could be associated with a drop in the stock value of a company, a polling drop in public support for a politician, the name of a choreographer’s dance program, a decline in the real estate market in New Delhi, India, or  the violent disintegration during a test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

Here’s how the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term:

Full Definition of FREE FALL

1
:  the condition of unrestrained motion in a gravitational field; also :  such motion
2
a :  the part of a parachute jump before the parachute opensb :  a rapid and continuing drop or decline <a free fall in stock prices>
free–fallintransitive verb

Three NBC employees, , and NBC News correspondent Tamron Hall read the story on the NBC Today Show. She didn’t make the distinction either between a “parachuting free fall” accident and a “free fall” accident.

The NBC report adds that “Both were Special Tactics Airmen, a force made up of specially-trained air traffic controllers, pararescuemen specializing in rescue operations, and military weathermen and forecasters.”  Not sure most viewers/readers know what a pararescueman is either. The Merriam-Webster dictionary does define the word :”pararescue” as “a search and rescue mission by specially trained personnel who can parachute to the site.”

Make your stories understandable journalism students. Your credibility, and the credibility of your news organization may be at stake; especially when the story involves the deaths of two men serving their country in the U.S. military.

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About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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