Can accurate and precise ‘Content’ be a matter of life and death?

Content is often referred to as something that isn't a matter of 'Life and death'. Think again!


Nikhil Menon

3 years ago | 4 min read

It’s been five years since I first ventured into the world of ‘Content’. And during this relatively short span, I’ve managed to work with some of the biggest names, as well with a diverse set of budding startups and SMEs.

During my earlier days at a digital marketing firm, I remember when a deadline was not met for an authored article. Our time management failed us, and we were brought to the metaphorical axing block. The infamous ‘Client Feedback Call’. Phrases like ‘utterly disappointing’, ‘failure to comply’ and ‘ A bunch of monkey with laptops’ were thrown around profusely, and the disastrous call ended after almost 30 minutes (though it felt like a year). Being a Fortune 500 institution, I didn’t expect any less from them.

Post the verbal slamming, I remember a designer nonchalantly stating, “What was the big deal? It wasn’t like they’d shut down tomorrow for hosting an article approximately 12 hours later. They behave like it’s life or death”, and everybody laughed, a few sniggered and some didn’t even pay heed to the statement. However I, a junior, chose to be silent. The designer then turned to me, and said, “You’re a copy guy. Has submitting an authored article a few hours late ever killed someone?”, and by this time over half the office was in splits. I thought about it for a moment and said, “I don’t know about authored articles, but I know about how a simple misplaced sentence in a manual once killed 6 people”. They all looked at me dumbstruck as I dived deep into one of the biggest cases surrounding the importance of accurate and precise content. Or rather, coming to the point as quick as possible.

The Ghost in the Sky

It’s the year 1999 and in the world of golfing, one of the biggest names in the arena was that of Payne Stewart. By this time, Payne had racked up 11 PGA championship titles and 3 World Championships, and was riding high on his wave of success. It was around this time that he decided to venture out of his career and build a world class golfing resort.

On the morning of October 25th 1999, Payne Stewart and his 2 agents, along with a design architect, drove to the Orlando International Airport. They boarded their chartered aircraft (a Learjet 35), which would travel onward to Dallas (Texas). They were on an official business visit to inspect prospective properties for their golfing resort.

They jet took off on time and reached its designated altitude. This is where it all went awry. It didn’t maintain its altitude and kept climbing, before it steadied itself and continued on its journey at 30,000 feet. The Orlando control tower couldn’t establish contact with the jet, and consecutive control towers along the way also failed to connect with the aircraft’s two pilots. The plane kept moving in the pre-planned trajectory, so was dismissed as a probable pilot error to tune into the right frequency.

However, at a crucial point in the journey over the state of Florida, the jet would have had to make a sharp turn towards Dallas. The jet failed to do so and kept moving straight, towards an unknown destination. The plane became a figurative ‘Ghost in the Sky’.

At this point, national authorities across the United States were put on alert and the President was notified. Two air force jets, who happened to be flying nearby to the stray path of the jet, were assigned to investigate the matter. After a tricky manoeuvre, the jets notified authorities that they had noticed the formation of frost on the jet’s windows. This indicated that all the passengers onboard the plane were possibly dead!

The plane kept flying till it ran out of fuel, where it ultimately free-fell from a height of 30,000 feet into a plot of land in Aberdeen, South Dakota. All six lives were lost.

Terrorism? Aliens? What could it have been?

After a couple years, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) in the US adjudged that the cause of death was attributed to Hypoxia - a condition where the human brain is deprived of oxygen for over 30 seconds resulting in immediate death.

What happened?

NTSB reports showed that immediately after take-off, the air intake valve wasn’t switched on by the pilot. This valve, a tiny knob on the panel, ensures that when the plane ascends, adequate oxygen is pumped into the cabin for respiration.

The deprivation of oxygen at a height of 3,000m (10,000 feet) along with rapid cabin depressurization during the initial ascent induced the first stage of Hypoxia, hampering the pilots’ cognitive abilities.. Another 10 seconds later and they were dead. Crash site investigations further revealed that the pilots failed to wear their oxygen masks, which would have saved them.

How does accurate and precise content help?

Both pilots on board were experienced personnel, with over 5,000 hours of combined flying time. They were trained extensively in the case of trouble-shooting as well.

In such a case, when the cabin air monitor sensor sounded an alarm in the cockpit, the immediate protocol for the pilot is to open up an instructional manual detailing the precautions and steps to be taken.

The training manual was inspected, and was found to be factually correct.However, after repeated scrutiny, the error began to surface.

One of the most crucial lines in the manual, which was to ‘Put on your oxygen masks and proceed’, was found to be placed on the 6th or 7th line of the opening page in the instructional manual. By the time the pilot reached this line, his brain was deprived of oxygen for over 15 seconds, rendering him unconscious.

A simple Instructional Design error. A single grave circumstance. And 6 unforeseen deaths.

So in hindsight, maybe content doesn’t always spell doom for an organisation. But a misplaced sentence, an in-cohesive statistic or an erroneous statement could result in catastrophic changes for an organisations’ market stature. A missed deadline is a potential market lost forever and a simple grammatical error could trigger-off the web crawler to process your content as spam. And don’t get me started on plagiarism.

Note: If you want to know more about the above incident, there is a NatGeo documentary titled ‘Deadly Silence’.


Created by

Nikhil Menon







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