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Op Eds

When Planes Vanish

By James F Kelleher, Jr.

On July 2, 1937, at around midnight, Amelia Earhart and fellow aviator Fred Noonan embarked in a Lockheed Electra from Lae—the second largest city in Papua New Guinea—en route to Howland Island, a tiny desolate island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. At 8:43 a.m. that morning, the USCGC Itasca, stationed near Howland, lost radio contact with the Electra.

For the next 16 days, as the US Navy scoured the South Pacific in search of the plane, the media covered each and every development. During that time frame, according to research through ProQuest, the New York Times published at least 12 front-page stories about the search, the Boston Globe 16 stories, and the New York Herald Tribune 26.

A rash of theories about the disappearance arose—from the plane crashing into the Pacific to landing on nearby Gardner Island. Everyone had an opinion, and the media was more than willing to share them. On July 15, the New York Herald Tribune ran the headline, “Woman Psychic Asserts Amelia Earhart Is Safe.”

This should all sound too familiar. The search for Flight 370—the missing Malaysian passenger plane bound for Beijing—has reached a tragic conclusion, with many questions left unanswered. After a 16-day search effort that involved two dozen nations and more than three million square miles, the Malaysian authorities announced: “We have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived. … We must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.”

As with the Earhart disappearance, the media frantically covered this missing plane. Everyone, both qualified and unqualified, seemed to have a theory—a cockpit fire, hijacking, plane malfunction, sabotage—and the media eagerly published and broadcasted many of them. News outlets examined the evidence (such as stolen passports, a potential oil slick, and aircraft simulators), and each new possible lead constituted “Breaking News” for CNN. The media also acutely focused on the grieving families of passengers.

There’s also been much commentary, ironically coming from the media, on the media’s handling of the story—particularly directed at CNN. The harshest critics argue that by its endless coverage, certain newscasts have cinematized a tragedy to bolster ratings or diverted focus from more “newsworthy” stories such as the Syrian crisis or the geopolitical turmoil surrounding Crimea.

These criticisms of coverage of Flight 370 hold some weight. A vanished airplane is a spectacular event—meant for films and books—that sells newspapers and glues eyes to screens. After the plane went missing, CNN’s primetime ratings jumped 68 percent over the year's average; the BBC’s reporting generated more traffic to its website than any news story since the 2011 Japanese tsunami. The uptick in numbers allowed the media to capitalize on an extraordinary event without as much consideration for the story’s news value.

Of course, news outlets should actively cover a story as big as that of Flight 370. A large passenger plane vanishing without a trace is significant news: Any potential foul play in aviation post-9/11 deserves our attention, and the efforts to find those aboard are of severe urgency. The story of Flight 370 needed to be told—it’s an important and tragic one.

And yet the reporting played out like a mystery novel, with false leads, potential culprits, large stakes. The plight of Flight 370 should one day appear as a book, with each piece of evidence weighed and scrutinized. But that’s not the strength or function of the current news media. In the quest to fill 24-hour time slots, CNN and other outlets relied upon non-news about Flight 370, delving into unqualified speculations, emotional pulls, and conspiracy theorizing. CNN even devoted time to discuss whether a black hole could account for the flight’s disappearance.

The frantic grab to report anything remotely related to Flight 370 diluted the actual news value of the event. By doing so, it obscured its tragedy and left an unsavory taste of exploitation for high ratings. This kind of behavior threatens the credibility of media outlets.

Time will pass, and Flight 370’s disappearance will drift from the intense media spotlight. Some questions may never be answered. Consider Earhart’s disappearance: As recently as 2012, more than 75 years after the Electra vanished, researchers still search for the wreckage.

It should come as no surprise that a missing plane generated much coverage and speculation. But when overdone and ill focused, media coverage itself becomes a spectacle that diminishes the news value of its subject. The lasting story of Flight 370 will be that 239 people were tragically lost. Reporting need not devolve into sensational journalism; the story can tell itself.

James F. Kelleher Jr. ’17 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Wigglesworth Hall.

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