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Concordia: Exception that Proves the Rule

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Cruising as a travel option still has a far better safety record than driving or flying.

The Costa Concordia tragedy has received an amazing amount of media attention, which comes as no surprise. The major consumer news media believe that a “newsworthy” story requires emotional impact, conflict, loss of life/property and/or novelty. This story has all of those elements – but it especially excels in the “novelty” category.

The Concordia story is especially compelling for the visual medium of television news, because we have never seen a modern cruise ship lying on its side before. While watching one cable news anchor doing a tease about an upcoming Concordia story, they showed the clip of the ship lying on its side for the thousandth time — but this time the anchor could clearly be heard mumbling to the director’s booth, “now cue it up again…”

That was a glimmer of acknowledgement from a real reporter that he knows when a story is being overplayed. The Concordia event was not overplayed at first, for as long as they stuck to the incident itself, but when the media started looking for evidence of malfeasance in the cruise industry’s past and reporting every little event as proof of a “cancer on the cruise industry,” it became too much.

Loss of life is always a tragedy, but did the media really seem concerned with finding out how many people were dead or missing, or their names, or whether they were crew or passengers? Not really — which is odd when you consider that most “tragedy” news stories begin with the number of dead or missing.

In this case, the lost souls were somehow an afterthought and the “story” was more about the captain, who was accurately reported to be a “coward” and has already been the subject of headlines like “Chicken of the Sea” and “Cap’n Crunch.” The media zoomed in on Captain Schettino’s actions to portray him as the villain he proved to be. I am not disputing that, but were his actions really more important than the people who are still missing, or those who survived, or the heroic efforts of the divers working on rescue?

Reporters who researched the numbers in their Concordia stories could have let people know that cruising is still the safest form of travel by far compared to flying or especially driving. I did hear it mentioned only once or twice, but in respect for the facts, wouldn’t it have been far more accurate to lead each story with, “in what is normally one of the safest vacations experiences possible, something extraordinary caused a cruise to go horribly wrong?” But instead a number of news organizations did their best to drum up other stories of untimely or negative cruise events. Obviously, they were hoping to find more “Cap’n Crunch” tales. With every big cruise event I get calls from major media asking me about “the hidden cruise world” that they somehow believe exists even though they have been covering the cruise industry themselves for years now, they don’t correlate the concept that if they have not had that much to report there must not be that much bad stuff going on.

In the worst reports, we heard the inevitable tales of people going “missing” at sea – with no mention of the fact that in nearly every such case, the leading national investigative body — the U.S. FBI – has determined that no foul play was involved.

While Concordia is a tragedy, there are few incidents in life where one can use the phrase “the exception that proves the rule” and truly mean it – but this is one.

Eighteen million people cruised in 2011, hundreds of millions (more than the population of the United States) have cruised the modern American cruise ships since the industry started and only in a handful of cases has anyone lost a life due to the negligence or malfeasance of a cruise line.

I don’t want to minimize the roughly 40 lives lost in the Concordia incident. In fact, I want to emphasize that number – because in context with the travel industry at large, it is comparatively small. Cruise ships commonly carry from 3,000 to more than 8,000 people (crew and passengers) on every cruise. Concordia is by far the worst accident in modern cruise history, an industry that was new in the 1960s and has grown steadily every year to become a $35 billion business in annual revenues. The loss of 40 people is horrible, but how many die on our highways every year? Even if you match it on a “per 1,000 passengers” basis, the odds are still vastly worse for driving, or flying, than for cruising.

So why is this story getting so much media coverage? I said it above: It’s the novelty of the situation — the fact that a modern cruise ship has never had such a tragic loss of life, and that no captain has ever abandoned a ship in a life or death situation. But the novelty of the situation has barely been mentioned by the major news media – the very fact is that there are so few “life or death” incidents in the cruise industry where every soul was not eventually saved for the last 30 years is a concept that is just “lost” in the mind of the media.

The fact is that there are no fully safe vacations, yet no one mentions the percentage of traffic-related deaths or plane crashes that happen yearly before a friend embarks on one of those vacations. When it comes to cruising the news media has always proven itself more than ready to report the worst possible scenario first, and then clarify the record later — after the fact, and only if it is convenient or necessary.

On a personal note I want to say one thing; as a travel writer I am no fan of “fluff” reporting. I see it all too often, especially in magazines geared toward travel sellers. I believe there are far too many stories distributed to travel agents almost like “talking” points for particular travel experiences, and cruising is certainly one of them.

But in this case I am speaking as a cruise industry reporter who sees the underbelly and knows the nuts and bolts of the industry and still finds reasons to love it. I have been reporting on cruising for so long that I am now inured to the pervasive anti-cruise bias that exists in some people. I don’t even bother to try to change anyone’s mind about cruising anymore. It’s like politics – people will listen to what they want to believe – and most of them don’t even want to hear the other side. There is no concern with “perspective” or “context” in the news media anymore.

So – here is the balanced opinion of the Concordia incident. It is a tragedy, but the story has legs mostly because cruise ships are beautiful, vastly complicated wonders of technology, similar to the Space Shuttle. But when we lost our Space Shuttles the people onboard were heroes. When after all of these years we finally lose our first cruise ship, the crewmembers are useless, the operators are conspiratorial cowards and the lost passengers are victims.

It’s funny how the media can choose any angle it wants – and it picks its favorites and crucifies the rest.

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Comment from J.Dyke
Time January 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm

I agree with all of this article. The media have a lot to answer for.
This tragedy has not affected my mind in relation to cruises. I still believe they are a great way to take a holiday, and I’ll be going on another one in March.

Comment from Todd De Haven
Time January 31, 2012 at 8:43 am

As usual Paul, you hit the nail squarely on the head.

Just yesterday I was talking with someone who has always been afraid of taking a cruise for fear something such as the Concordia could occur.

I told her that, as are many things, a possbility. I then added that just leaving this house and then pulling out onto the highway means that betting killed by another vehicle slamming into yours is hundred of thousands of times greater than drowning on a large cruise vessel. Her reply was she at least had control of her own car.

Knowing she loves to fly I pointed out that while extremely small, her chances of dying in an airliner crash are far far greater than drowning on a sinking ship; not to mention she’s not in charge of that conveyance either.

Now she’ll probably never take a cruise but I did say to her the old adage, “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. You may be very pleasantly surprised!”

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