Journalists in Alaska’s largest city can now thank Nome’s Nate Perkins for doing their job for them.
He was the first to identify 23-year-old Tyler Haroldson as the pilot who crashed his single-engine plane in the mountains north of Palmer, walked away unharmed, never bothered to notify authorities, and thus left them futilely searching for the plane’s beeping rescue beacon for four days.
This is how the news works these days. Reporters rewrite press releases full of holes from federal, state or local authorities, and then it is left to readers to do the reporting legwork and post in the comments below the stories the key information most readers want to know.
KTUU, the self-proclaimed Alaska’s News Source, was the first to report this crash, but didn’t really report anything. It regurgitated a media statement from Alaska State Troopers.
“Troopers were unable to locate the pilot until he was reached by phone at 6:35 p.m. on Feb. 10,” according to the television state. “Troopers reported that the pilot suffered a mechanical issue during flight and took a hard landing before he was able to self-rescue with the help of someone else.”
The pilot’s name? Not mentioned.
The “someone else.” Ditto.
The inherent contradiction between self “rescued” and helped by someone else? Never mind. This was the way the Troopers decided the story should be told.
After KTUU did the story, the Pulitizer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News, the state’s largest news organization, picked it up. Its contribution to the question just about every pilot and many others in Alaska wanted answered was this:
Austin McDaniel, a spokesman for Troopers said, “the Department of Public Safety in its press releases doesn’t usually include the identities of people involved in search and rescue operations unless doing so would help them find the missing individuals; they’ve been charged with a crime; or, if they died in the incident, their next of kin have been notified.”
Never mind that the names of people who become the subject of search and rescue operations in Alaska are public information, or that pilots are required to report crashes like this to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which then puts their names in the public incident and accidents reports that track airplane crashes all across the country.
Not rocket science
So it fell to Perkins to do the actual reporting work, which wasn’t hard. This reporting is embarrassingly easy if you know the plane’s “tail number,” which was clearly visible as N96552 in the photo troopers supplied the media.
Tying the plane to its owner takes about 30 seconds (I timed it), including the time necessary to type “Google” into the computer browser. After that, you type “plane registration lookup” into the search box, click, wait for the computer to produce the “N-Number Inquiry – FAA Civil Aviation Registry,” click again, and type the tail number into the “N-number inquiry box” on the search page of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
An old journalism friend no longer working in journalism, an individual who can sometimes have a conniption fit about how shabby Alaska reporting has become, blamed the shoddy reporting here in part on laziness.
But that’s hard to buy, given that it took 20 seconds to dial McDaniel’s phone and let it ring twice. (Timed to that, too). By the time a reporter got him on the phone, if he was in, and identified himself or herself before starting to ask questions, the clock would have already run past the 30 seconds it took to look the information up online and, at the very least, identify the owner of the airplane.
A reporter can then report the plane is owned by X. That isn’t necessarily the pilot, but in this case, an email to McDaniel rather quickly confirmed that Haroldson was both the owner and pilot.
Why would he confirm this? Because it’s his job to provide public information when specifically asked for it even if it’s not his job to volunteer information his bosses don’t want volunteered.
Given how easy this information was to obtain, a better explanation for the failure of at least two reporters to do the simplest of reporting jobs is either that they didn’t know there is an airplane registry, a possibility, or they were content, as many reporters are these days, to perform largely as the fourth arm of government instead of doing their job, which is fundamentally simple.
When the news happens, tell readers the who, what, when, where, how and maybe why of what happened. The why comes with that maybe only because sometimes no one knows that answer
In this particular case, however, Haroldson clearly ought to know the why, and it is rather important given that search and rescue (SAR) operations are inherently dangerous. A trooper pilot, a trooper and the snowmachine rider troopers were rescuing died in a helicopter crash after a SAR operation near Talkeetna only eight years ago – a SAR operation conducted not far from the site of this plane crash.
The 23-year-old Haroldson made a big mistake. His explanation as to why could be enlightening.
In the best case, it is possible he notified the NTSB of the crash, something required by law, and thought they would inform troopers. In the worst case, he just didn’t care if people wasted time looking for him.
There are also options between the two. Maybe he didn’t think the search beacon in the plane had activated. Maybe he was embarrassed about the crash and didn’t want to tell anyone.
Efforts to easily contact Haroldson for this story failed. He took his Instagram page – “(@tyguyh88) … Things that fly ✈️ Alaska” and his Facebook pages down sometime after he was identified in the comments on the ADN story.
His Palmer address is in the FAA records, and a reporter could have driven to Palmer to try to knock on his door and ask the questions, but this one didn’t. I didn’t think it worth the drive because more interesting than Haroldson’s behavior here is that of the Alaska media.
The troopers, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and the Alaska National Guard were involved in this search for days and nobody asked how much it cost? The Guard considers these missions good training, generally no matter the cost, and the CAP is sometimes of a similar opinion, but given the state of state budgets, the troopers have better things to spend their money on than needless searches and SAR oversight, a trooper responsibility whether they want it or not.
And there were some risks involved.
Troopers reported severe weather with high winds and low visibility during the search and 13 hours spent on the ground by a search team looking for an aircraft. People can get injured in these kinds of conditions.
So it would be interesting to hear Haroldson’s explanation for what happened in this particular case.
But it would be even better to see local media resume the reporting job once expected of local media rather than rewriting government edicts and waiting for readers to do the reporting to fill in the details, but this is where we are today.
One could blame ignorance or laziness, as the non-working journalist did, for this change in journalistic behavior, but it’s really more about leadership.
Reporters rise to the level of the reporting expected of them. If all they are expected to do is serve as re-write for the huge number of “public information officers,” public-relations operatives, and media spokeswomen, spokesmen or sometimes just plain “spokes” serving as defacto reporters, that’s all they will do.
Sadly, this re-write business is also a perfect description of how to kill the First Amendment guarantee of a free press. There is no need to restrict what can be reported if the government can take over the job of reporting by spoon-feeding the mainstream media so it has more time to spend pushing the idea its competition in alternative media is only reporting “fake news.”