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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Malaysian airlines story leads to speculative reports

Recent news coverage of the missing Malaysian airlines flight has led some to question the media’s role in the crisis. Although ample coverage of the missing plan exists, it’s still unclear exactly what happened to the plane and its hundreds of passengers, including a couple Americans. Not even the highest ranked experts have come up with a conclusive and proven story yet.

Nonetheless, journalists and the media want answers. Countless stories, reports and special releases have been floating around for weeks. But some are now questioning the ethics behind the Malaysian airlines reports because of the nature of the story’s coverage, and the decision of journalists to  use unknown information.

Seemingly meaningless details of the flight now carry great importance for journalists. For example, some journalists have tried to dissect the pilot’s final words, “all right, good night,” citing the phrase as the last known contact with the plane. What could this cryptic ending mean? journalists asked.

But pilots say things like that all the time, and the phrase may not mean much – if anything – in the search for the plane. Yet CNN wrote a story on the subject when the Malaysian government released new information saying the last words of the plane were in fact “Goodnight Malaysian three seven zero.” Journalists crafted stories as to why the Malaysian government “lied” before, implying the new report was a significant, hidden clue.

Similarly, other members of the media have also become fixated on the fact some of the passengers’ cell phones were still ringing. Although a minor detail, the status of the passengers’ phones also became a critical part of the story and served as rationale as to why the plane was or wasn’t still out there.

There are numerous speculations and theories about the status of the plane. According to Poynter, who wrote a column criticizing the reports of journalists, some of the theories out there are that the plane made an emergency landing, is in North Korea, was hijacked by Iranian terrorists. Is there a strong factual basis for any of these theories? The answer is most likely no. Yet news outlets in their constant search for new developments try to obtain the most information they can.

Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and blogger discussed some factual errors made by media covering the story in a recent blog post. Although USA Today claimed in one report that the pilot had full responsibility for flying off course, Smith says any journalist who had done their homework would know there are always two pilots on board.

These examples and others suggest that journalists covering the Malaysian plane incident may have been too focused on manufacturing a story instead of waiting for more information. Finding verified information may make for a less interesting story, but without facts, reporting is reduced to speculation and rumors.

[photo credit: AP/Daniel Chan]

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