Medias missing flight fixation skews the news

I’m going to be honest: For a newspaper writer, I don’t keep up with news that much. But over the past month, Americans have been enthralled by the search for Malaysian flight MH370, which went missing en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. However, was all this attention merited?

First, an update: According to Al Jazeera, Australian officials encountered two “pings” during a search for the plane off the country’s west coast. Angus Houston, who is coordinating the Australian search effort, is confident that these electronic signals are from the missing aircraft’s blackbox.

Officials are eager to find the blackbox because it could have recorded the aircraft’s last minutes. This would give many people closure on what happened to the aircraft and could end the search completely.

Now searchers are scrambling to find this box that will give us all the answers before its month-long battery dies and leaves us clueless. It’s dramatic one-liners like this that drive sensationalist news coverage. Don’t get me wrong: This is a tragedy. For the friends and family of the 239 people on board, closure rests on finding that metal casing with flight data and voice recorders inside.

However, the media circus went to town on the few facts that were provided in the initial search. Bill Carter of the New York Times railed on news outlets – specifically CNN – that took the few initial facts and concocted grand schemes, filming their reporters in the cockpits of Boeing 777s narrating what might have happened across sparkly flight simulators.

They have been rewarded for their unending, speculative coverage as well: Ratings have skyrocketed. Depending on whom you ask, the ability to increase ratings by exacerbating high drama either makes you a good journalist or a part of the problem.

This whole story reeks of high drama. The handful of solid facts give plenty of room to extrapolate schemes. Maybe it was terrorism. Maybe a meteor hit the plane. There hasn’t been a plane disappearance since 2009, and it took two years to find that one. Could it take even longer this time?

There are themes of international crisis and collaboration, the threat of failure, complete and utter mystery and, perhaps most intriguing, systemic technological collapse that would make thousands afraid to get on a plane again.

I am disillusioned with the media but am not dumb enough to think that coverage like this will change anytime soon. Hey, at least a news outlet focused on a story for more than four minutes. With enough spit-shining, this could be written off as a positive move!

The question is: What did we miss by obsessively covering MH370? Well there is the situation in Ukraine, which has erupted into political turmoil over Ukraine’s ties with Russia. Or, even less reported, the violent student protests occurring in Venezuela right now.

More broadly, how do we determine what events deserve coverage at all? The short answer is rooted in how we consume news media. Even if you just click on those links without the intention of actually reading their eye-catching stories, it counts as a victory for the news outlet and promotes the popularity of the topic. As a result, the news sources post more related stories loaded with advertisements so they can earn as much money as possible.

My challenge to you is this: Do not click! The news will still be there, and when it’s resolved, I’m sure you will know. In the meantime, you can just wait for the #blackbox to show up on Twitter.

Michael Enich ’14 is from Chicago, Ill. He majors in religion.

+ posts