3 TSA headlines you thought you’d never see

By | June 17th, 2012

Don't go there. / Photo by Maxy Media - Flickr

Guess what? The TSA’s controversial full-body scanners are safe, after all.

The agency is working hard to repair its tarnished image, too. Not that it needs to; a vast majority of Americans are happy with airport security.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think these headlines — which appeared in the nation’s newspapers last week — prove the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems had turned a corner, that it finally got it.

But you probably know better.

Satisfaction with airport security increases

That’s the headline on a news release sent out by Travel Leaders Group last week — one of hundreds of surveys designed to get the news media’s attention during the busy summer travel season.

And this one definitely served its purpose, getting pickups in a wide variety of news outlets. The survey claimed two-thirds of U.S. travelers are “satisfied” with the level of security at airports, up 6 percent from last year. Only 17 percent indicate they are “unsatisfied.”

“The vast majority of American air traveler have adapted to today’s airport security measures and, despite any perceived inconveniences, understand that the safety and well-being of all airline passengers is paramount,” Travel Leaders CEO Barry Liben said in a prepared statement.

Ahem. The vast majority?

The truth: Have a look at the survey’s methodology. The travel agency polled 855 people, which it contacted through social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter, and through its own travel clients. In other words, it asked a small sample of experienced travelers for their opinion about airport security.

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What these numbers actually say is that a handful of tech-savvy air travelers have figured out how to deal with the TSA’s security hassles. But not a “vast” majority. Not even close. Even assuming Travel Leaders’ survey said what it claims — that 66 percent of Americans were “satisfied” — that’s hardly an endorsement. (Every student knows a 66 percent is a “D.”)

TSA scanners pose negligible risk to passengers, new test shows

You might have read that headline in the Los Angeles Times. The story quoted an unpublished Marquette University College of Engineering study that concluded full-body scanners used for security screening at the nation’s airports do not expose passengers to dangerous levels of radiation. It said the controversial backscatter scanners emit radiation levels are considerably lower than those of other X-ray procedures such as mammograms.

But wait. As my colleagues at TSA News pointed out, the study didn’t test an actual scanner, ignored an entire class of scanner, and didn’t answer the fundamental question of whether the scanners were safe.

In a follow-up email sent to me, the study’s author, Taly Gilat-Schmidt, said the LA Times “did not accurately represent my statements about our research.”

“I was very clear with the reporter that I could not draw any conclusions about risk from my work,” the professor added. “But of course, a quote was taken out of context and turned into a very misleading headline.”

Here’s the full rebuttal.

As a journalist, I know it can sometimes be a challenge to distill complicated research into a story or headline. It’s too bad this one will be used by TSA apologists for what TSA News calls “propaganda” purposes. (Scroll to the bottom of this story if you want to sound off on whether TSA is winning the propaganda war.)

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The truth: No one really knows how safe — or unsafe — the scanners are. An independent test of an actual scanner might be helpful.

TSA says it’s working to improve poor reputation

Never mind the fact that this headline contradicts the first item in this commentary. (I mean, either the agency has an image problem, or it doesn’t.) Or that, come to think of it, the headline sort of contradicts the story. It was published by the Associated Press and picked up by virtually every major American newspaper and news site, and the headline was virtually identical no matter where it appeared.

The story was a pretty straightforward report about a congressional hearing in which TSA Administrator John Pistole talked about the steps the agency is taking to improve screening.

As far as I can tell, Pistole never admitted his agency had a “poor” reputation or that he was working on improving it. In fact, the agency would disagree that it has an awful reputation because its detractors say it is in denial.

The truth: The only thing the TSA is working hard to do (and with some success) is ensuring the survival of the agency, growing its already formidable bureaucracy, and stonewalling most of its critics. But a story to that effect wouldn’t have really gotten the traction that this one did.

Covering the TSA isn’t easy. I know. I’ve following the agency since its inception more than 10 years ago. Editors and reporters are curiously ambivalent about the agency. They want to be seen as watchdogs, not lapdogs, but they also don’t want to be thought of as unpatriotic. Also, the agency works in mysterious ways that even insiders have some trouble understanding, let alone explaining. I get it.

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But these headlines — and in some cases, the stories — take us in the wrong direction. They mislead the public about a deeply troubled agency.

We can do better.

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