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September 19, 2014
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Opinion

Guest commentary: Missing flight news driven by speculation

The defining image from media coverage of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was the home page of CNN on March 24, where a jumbo-sized headline screamed “ALL LIVES ARE LOST” underneath a red breaking news banner.

Though some are pushing for more information and answers, the media’s obsessive coverage of the mystery of the missing flight has gone on long enough. According to a private British satellite company, the plane’s last known location was over the Indian Ocean, and the passengers and crew members were officially declared dead March 24. The airline plans to pay $5,000 to the passengers’ families to compensate for the tragedy. But in the ongoing stream of headlines, after countless interviews with pilots, government officials and airline crew members, we still don’t know what happened to the plane and its passengers.

The New York Times ran a front-page story March 15 about how Malaysian officials decided to open up the search to criminal inquiry. Though there is no evidence of illicit activity on the aircraft, authorities turned the search into a criminal investigation after discovering the flight spent seven hours off course. As one anonymous American official said in the piece, the criminal inquiry is merely conjecture, and no one officially knows what happened. Yet The New York Times still published this theory as a major headline.

There is no shortage of these theories coming from the public and the media. Current ideas that have been played up in the media include, but are not limited to: mechanical failure, a crazed pilot, criminal hijacking, aliens, meteors, black holes, the Bermuda Triangle and an elaborate reality show plot. The media are not a place for theories.

Journalism is about information. But with the coverage of the missing plane, there is so much non-information in circulation. The constant stream of updates isn’t providing any answers, only exaggerated hypotheses about what happened to the flight. Media critics and journalists skewered CNN for its parade of theories. In one instance, CNN Newsroom host Don Lemon raised the possibility of a supernatural explanation for the missing plane’s whereabouts. In a live broadcast, he asked whether it was “preposterous” to consider a black hole as a possible cause for the plane’s disappearance.

Snarky commentary from the Twitter community ensued, such as the TN Conservative, who tweeted, “Theory: CNN has found the missing plane and hidden it just so they can keep the coverage going.”

The media critics have a point. Even fellow journalists have criticized the media’s constant coverage. Reporter Michael Wolff recently wrote an article for the Guardian in which he called the MH370 story “the new anti-journalism.” According to Wolff, the media is obsessed with this story because it’s easy and cheap to cover; nobody has to go anywhere to report this story, there is no wreckage to photograph and news networks can continue to bring in guest commentators.

The media does not have to completely abandon the story. But news outlets such as The New York Times and CNN have wasted airtime and space on irrelevant speculation. All we really know is that the plane is still missing, and until this changes, further coverage isn’t necessary.