Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Breaking speculation is not news

    On March 8, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared less than an hour into its flight. The story was news — front page, top of the broadcast, trending on the Internet, legitimate news.
    In the first hours and days, search ef-forts expanded. A bit of satellite informa-tion indicated that the plane probably made an unexpected turn. Images of pos-sible wreckage were identified as lost cargo. All of that was news. Mostly, how-ever, the search just continued without result. Nothing happened; nothing changed; nothing was added or taken away. That was the reality for much of the past two weeks, a reality of which we are too little aware.
    There continues to be real tragedy and grief in this story. There continues to be intense curiosity about what happened and why. Since the twin towers of the World Trade Center were reduced to rub-ble by terrorists that used commercial airliners as bombs on Sept. 11, 2001, the world has wondered about how airplanes in the hands of violent people could be used to wreak havoc that ordinary people don’t expect. Nonetheless, the level of cov-erage about Malaysian Flight 370 heaped upon consumers was out of proportion.
    Those who could tell us about a 777, or wind and sea currents, or past airplane disappearances, added to our knowledge of facts surrounding this incident. But they were quickly replaced by “experts” who used air time for guessing about every-thing from who might be involved to whether and where the plane might have been able to land.
    With no factual information to report, news organizations ginned up this specu-lation as somehow new or different. News consumers needed more real knowledge of this incident, but the speculation did not lead to a more informed public. Instead, it created a sense that the world was some-how facing yet another threat and gave us something else to worry about.
    Our modern pace of communication, including GPS signals that can locate in-dividuals within a few feet, has created the unrealistic expectation that losing some-thing as big as a Boeing 777 is not possible, but it is. Developing an understanding that living in the world can be uncertain without necessarily being constantly dark and scary is lost when speculation is hyped as important information that must have our immediate attention.
    As in most cases where commercial flights have suddenly lost radar or voice contact, the search for the wreckage of the plane will continue, even if it is eventually scaled back, until an answer is eventually uncovered. When and if pieces of the plane are found, it will be real breaking news and it will be fully reported. That time could come weeks, months or even years from now. Until then, speculation wearing the label of news should be left to the back fence.

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