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November 16, 2016

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Croydon tram crash

A tram tragedy: why we need a knowledgeable media

On the day Donald Trump won the presidential election in the United States, an early morning tram left the tracks in Croydon, south of London and crashed.  The incident tragically resulted in the loss of seven lives and caused injuries to more than 50 people.

A tram heading for Sandilands station

A tram heading for Sandilands station

Alongside the wall-to-wall post-election coverage, the tram incident was relegated to the ‘in other news’ slot.  On the day following, there was more media coverage and one particular phrase on a BBC breakfast bulletin got my attention.  The report gave the story so far and said there was a  possibility that the driver had blacked out, the story continued with the reporter quoting a source as saying that it was: ‘too early to speculate on a single cause for the accident’.

This reinforced the perception that journalists want to – and are often pushed to – broadcast the cause of any incident as soon as possible in order to quench the thirst of the 24-hour news cycle. Although, to be fair, interviews with accident investigators during week commencing 14 November, have reported comments about the probability of a lengthy investigation and multiple causes.

However, I do think there is definitely room for cooperation between health, safety and incident investigation professionals and the media to improve reporters’ understanding of an incident, including causation and prevention.

An offline session (i.e. one that is not connected to an ongoing incident) would allow an exchange and give an opportunity for health and safety people to coach the journalists, reporters and editors who cover these incidents about some key principles in health and safety.  It would also result in health and safety people understanding where the media are coming from.

I originally trained and worked as a reporter covering – among other tragedies – the Manchester Air disaster ; the Zeebrugge ferry sinking; the INLA Ballykelly bombing; and the Bradford City fire.

From there I went into public relations consultancy, helping companies avoid or minimise the impact of industrial and commercial crises – a sort of poacher, turned gamekeeper. Then I spent a decade in corporate communications before a nine-year stint as head of crisis management, security and health and safety in a Fortune 500 company with operations in 100 countries.

The result of my experience has allowed me to look at incidents from many points of the compass and to appreciate some of the stresses and strains involved in preventing, reporting and speculating on, investigating and learning from fatal and severe injury incidents.

But as a starting point, what do the media want?

The media often slaps ‘elf and safety with accusations that it’s populated by a killjoy bunch of humourless, hard-hatted jobsworths whose only aim in life is to stop school trips, snowball fights and conker contests.

As we know, health and safety concerns are often used by those in schools and businesses as a universal panacea to cover up other inadequacies and general laziness in thinking, planning and managing activities at school, work or related to transport. Thanks to the HSE’s Myth-Buster campaigns, this has lessened, but still features in some media.

But the reality for the media is that it seeks victims, culprits and answers and this is central to the way they work – often because of the limited time or space allowed for a news report on an incident.

As an example, media coverage of the Croydon tram incident started with reports from the emergency services, eye witnesses and then residents who said they predicted something like this would happen.

It moved on to the announcement of the investigation to criticism of shift rostering and the company statement in response, stating that rosters were agreed with unions, etc.

As the driver was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and has been released on bail until May, it wouldn’t be wise, or legal to dig further into this case. Media coverage also wanes at this point, to reappear at the next court date.

But reporting of this incident does offer background and input into how the media could improve the quality and depth of coverage of incidents.

So what would be in my ‘101 Health and Safety Coaching for the Media’ aimed at reporters and others involved in covering these incidents?

Three areas:

  • Incident causation
  • Incident investigation and root causes
  • Health and Safety law, with a focus on directors’ and managers’ responsibilities.

Understanding the Swiss Cheese model, or the Reason’s Incident Causation Model is a ‘must’.

As the readership of SHP is predominantly safety professionals – I won’t go into the detail, other than to outline that the multiple failures in each level of management and supervision are the ‘supply chain to the incident’ and that the last act is the final failure that completed the series of failures.

The media, however, wants simplicity and speed – ‘pilot error, driver error, equipment failure’ are ideal starting points for them – and often, finishing points.

Passers-by and incident witnesses will always remain good media sources in the first hour or so, for quotes on ‘what (they think) happened’.  Understanding the contributory factors – the failure of all the slices of cheese – leading to an incident will be of benefit to the reporter, because it will indicate who he or she should seek to interview next and soon.

In addition, the reporter, equipped with the principles of incident causation will consequently be able to ask more incisive and relevant questions of company spokespeople, regulators and the emergency services.

Understanding incident causation will also segue into how an incident is investigated and the methodology of an investigation, together with an appreciation that ‘pilot error or driver error’ is at the final stage of a series of actions or omissions that contributed to the incident.

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SHP = Second Hand Press
SHP = Second Hand Press
3 years ago

This article is pretty unjust, just like to many others UK “news” sites. You criticise journalists who “quench the thirst of the 24-hour news cycle” yet frequently use clickbait techniques on SHP. The article in itself is a clickbait, with “Trump” being the first word of your title and a tag for your website SEO. How ironic. So may of your posts are copied and pasted press releases with credit to SHP as the authors. Changing one word in a title is not journalism. Try harder next time.

Doug Hiscock
Doug Hiscock
3 years ago

Personally I do believe the article has dealt with the article in a very diplomatic manner. Whilst Trump has nothing to do with the article, inexpensive needs to understand, the press and the health and safety professional are two different animals. Diametrically opposed in thinking and motivation. The reporters immediate reaction to an occurrence is “Here is a story it’s news I can sell.”. The HSE professionals thinking is “Let us establish the facts and then once we are sure can make an informed comment”. Sad but true. Often the press jump in and sensationalise a story rather than establish… Read more »

steve paul
steve paul
3 years ago

!) i think the election of Mr Trump is far more news worthy than a UK related tranm crash
2) The media must be allowed to act within guidlines other wise freedom of speech and democracy becomes secondary
3) I agree with the sentiments of the below poster SHP and further add the obvious pro EU tendencies and anti Tory sentiments of the pubication

Kate Betts
Kate Betts
3 years ago

I am a former journalist who now works with companies and organisations as a media relations adviser to help them promote and protect their reputations. My company specialises in crisis comms. While I appreciate we need a better informed media, you need to be realistic about the world journalists work in. Trying to engage reporters in some sort of ‘background briefing’ is somewhat unrealistic. Most reporters are generic reporters who cover any topic that happens – and cover the story in a rush. They simply don’t have the time to understand ‘causation’ models or the law surrounding the incident. To… Read more »

Heather
Heather
3 years ago
Reply to  Kate Betts

I agree with the need to simplify for people – it IS an interesting post though.

Doug Hiscock
Doug Hiscock
3 years ago
Reply to  Kate Betts

My point exactly. Why should companies now be forced to hire experts to nullify the utterances of a rampant press and irresponsible reporting. In the good old bad old days whilst we were fighting for freedom of press it was never I visited that the press would abuse their position. Why should the Press be permitted to abuse their role in society. We have calls for gun laws and licensing. There is statute protecting citizens from slander and abuse. Why should irresponsible reporters and press be permitted to ruin the reputation of any person or organisation in the interest of… Read more »

David Williams
David Williams
3 years ago

A correction is needed to the post: the tram dirver has not, as far as I know, been charged with any offence but he was arrested and questioned on suspicion of manslaughter and was subsequently released on police bail.

Roz Sanderson
Roz Sanderson
3 years ago
Reply to  David Williams

Yes – completely right David. Our mistake, I have updated the article to reflect that.

Ray Rapp
Ray Rapp
3 years ago

Interesting comments and observations…the above aricle states: ‘As the driver has been charged with manslaughter and bailed pending further proceedings, it wouldn’t be wise, or legal to dig further into this case.’ However with my knowledge of the law and accident causation I was surprised at this comment given that the authorities have still to complete their investigation. Meanwhile, having checked out the BBC news from yesterday an article states: ‘Mr Dorris, from Beckenham, south-east London, has been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and released on bail until May.’ That is very different to being ‘charged with manslaughter’. Perhaps the… Read more »

Roz Sanderson
Roz Sanderson
3 years ago
Reply to  Ray Rapp

Thanks Ray – completely right. I missed that in proofing, thanks for commenting and have updated the post to reflect that.

Ruth Strong
Ruth Strong
3 years ago

As a retired railway employee with much experience in the Safety field, I am aware that the RAIB will conduct the investigation but it is clear that journalistic speculation may illustrate some ignorance of what the remit of any investigation of light and heavy rail incidents. I would expect them to look at shift and roster patterns; whether they are agreed with the unions or not is irrelevant to their fitness for purpose. I would expect the condition of the track and tram inself to be rigourously examined. There are standards concerning fatigue mangement, competancy assessment and training, route knowledge,… Read more »