COLUMN-The jumbo coverage of Malaysia flight MH370

by Reuters
Tuesday, 18 March 2014 14:16 GMT

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Jack Shafer

March 18 (Reuters) - When a big story breaks, my news digestion knows no satiety. Earthquake, assassination, invasion, bank run, political campaign, celebrity court case, sport scandal or a drunk stubs his toe on the Lower East Side - I can handle anything the press swarm sends at me.

So unlike Fox News press reporter Howard Kurtz ("It's too much with too few facts," he said last week of the saturation reporting by his former network, CNN, about Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370), I can handle any "over"-coverage the news machine chooses to throw my way. By handle, I usually mean avoid, but on a story like MH370, I desire the sort of coverage that could fill the Indian Ocean, which I did not know until last week had an average depth of 2.5 miles.

That fact was only one of the scores of news nuggets I've chewed and swallowed since the airliner was reported missing on March 8. While I'm aware that the flight's fate, its back story, and repercussions will have no impact on my life, and that there aren't enough degrees of Kevin Bacon to connect me to 95 percent of the missing passengers, I have clawed my way through stories and even stayed up at night to learn about transponders, the different kinds of radars, the stolen passport business, the number of air strips within MH370's flight range that could have accommodated a landing, general Malaysian political incompetence, Southeast Asian geography, satellite telemetry, international relations, black boxes, the workings of the Malaysian criminal justice system, the Andaman Islands, life raft locator radios, search technologies, air navigation and more. One measure of my devotion to this story is that I even watched an oceanographer talk on Charlie Rose about the missing aircraft.

None of my newly acquired knowledge will serve me in any tangible way. It won't improve democracy or raise productivity. I doubt that it will even make me a better journalist, although it might make me a better conversationalist. But the story has wedged its way into my consciousness and will persist until somebody locates the Boeing 777 and solves the mystery.

Much has been made about how provisional some of the findings of journalists have been in their coverage of MH370 - inaccuracies about the origin of the flight data and what time the flight disappeared, the provenance of the debris spotted by a satellite and the number of no-shows for the flight. As my colleague Erik Wemple of the Washington Post explained last week, fast-moving stories routinely produce conflicting reports; as was the case with the Boston Marathon bombing, the Washington Navy Yard shootings and the Newtown slaughter. Dozens of conflicting reports emerged from the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, the 9/11 attacks, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and even Watergate reporting. I'm not making excuses for anybody, but those who expect perfect reporting from the scene of breaking news haven't been paying close attention to what they have been consuming over the years.

The human fascination with disaster has probably always been with us, preserved as it is in folk tales, religious parables and literature. In his new and excellent book, "The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself," historian Andrew Pettegree writes about the craving the original readers of newspapers in the late 1500s had for earthquakes, floods, other stupendous weather disasters and strange occurrences. The appetite for deadly crime stories - even deadly crime stories taking place far away or years ago - would suffice. In 1586, a London printer named Thomas Purfoot horrified readers with an account of a triple-slaying in northwest France by a Frenchman. The better a story conveyed the dangers of life, the more readily it was consumed.

Sensationalistic accounts of celestial visits by comets, meteors, and the Northern lights, stories about monstrous births and strange animals, and documentary reports about appearances by the Devil - anything potentially dangerous or out of the ordinary - were more than fit to print in these early newspapers. The taste for news of the weird or unusual has never abated.

Now I won't try to advance a theory out of evolutionary psychology to explain our hunger for peculiar news other than to say that it seems unstoppable. Such news makes some of us more fearful of the world. For others, it brings calm or a sense of normalcy, like the Londoners who lived through the blitz. Combine news of the weird with a mystery, such as an unaccountably missing airliner on the other side of the world, and you have the makings of an itch that no scratching can relieve.

I speak as a reader, but also as a journalist, as I observe my colleagues pursue the MH370 story. Reduced to two dimensions, journalism is a game of chase, with reporters dashing like bloodhounds through the undergrowth of evidence until cornering the story. The longer it takes for reporters to corner the quarry, the more suspenseful the story becomes - is there any more suspenseful story than "Alive or Dead"? The greater the suspense, the greater the reader interest, and the greater the reader interest the greater journalistic enthusiasm to attack the tale from the oblique angles - to plumb the history books for stories of other missing aircraft, address the human interest elements, advance competing theories about the flight's fate and puncture the evidence offered by authorities ("A lot of stock cannot be put in the altitude data" sent from the engines, one official told the New York Times. "A lot of this doesn't make sense.")

If, after analyzing the Nexis dump and TiVo hoard, you still believe the MH370 coverage extravagant and wasteful, I give you permission to avert your eyes from this story. For those of us who remain enthralled by it, who have used the story as an entry point into Malaysian politics or flight safety or satellite surveillance, you have nothing to apologize for. Readers have been giving themselves over to grand, mysterious stories that don't directly affect them for five centuries. The news menu remains immense and varied. If you don't like the MH370 story, do us a favor and pick something else. (Jack Shafer)

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