When tragedy happens, there is no excuse for ridicule or insensitive joking. From an ethical standpoint, officials and speculators involved have an ethical responsibility not to escalate the suffering of those involved, but some have apparently missed that memo. Almost from the beginning, the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has been the hottest subject in the media, but the reporting situation has started reaching ridiculous heights as networks and media outlets, even public servants, are using the story for publicity and ratings.
The worst case of media malpractice so far is CNN’s speculation that a black hole might be a possible explanation, defying all reasonable science to ask that pressing question. The answer to that is a resounding no. A black hole would simply kill everyone in the world by swallowing the earth whole. The television anchor who asked that question prefaced it by saying it was “preposterous” and he would have been smart to leave it at that. Such speculation is not only stupid, but has such a flimsy journalistic basis that CNN was rightly and duly laughed at for that story.
But CNN is not the only entity to engage in speculation. Yesterday, Russian intelligence sources claimed that the missing flight had landed in Afghanistan. According to these unspecified Russian intelligence sources, 20 Asian “specialists” were being held in a bunker in Pakistan while the remaining passengers were being held in deplorable conditions in mud huts. This source was identified as being from Russia’s Federal security Service (FSB), which might lend some credibility to the nature of the source, but not to its claims, which at this point in the search are just disgustingly inflammatory.
With speculation like these reaching the heights of utmost ridiculousness, it might be more reasonable to expect the authorities directly involved in searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight to be more professional with their own information. Most recently, however, Tony Abbott, the Australian Prime Minister who has for the most part handled the situation quite well, was publicly contradicted by an Aussie official creating a bit of consternation. In a press conference in China yesterday, he announced that he was “very confident” that the search had found signals from the missing black box and that the search had been very narrowed down to an area of 10 kilometers by 10 kilometers. He then said he communicated this information in a private briefing to the Chinese President, an important step for a country with distraught family members looking for answers.
Not long after Abbott’s statement, however, Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston contradicted the prime minister’s statement, responding to the resulting media frenzy by saying there had been “no major breakthrough.” He also addressed the issue of signals detected by an RAAF P-3 Orion aircraft on patrol, saying that it was not believed to be signals from the missing black box, further dampening any optimism. Despite Abbott’s confidence, it seems that nothing new was known and the excitement generated in the media was dampened.
What is the explanation for the contradiction? Up until yesterday, Abbott’s handling of the release of information has been nearly impeccable. Despite being criticized for releasing information on the flight quickly, the Australian prime minister’s action also received praise for being cautious and timely, focused on helping the distraught families stay informed instead of leaving them in suspense. The change between that initial impression of Abbott’s handling of the situation and yesterday’s contradictory reports is especially noticeable and asking for an explanation is not out of place.
There are two possible explanations for the apparent contradiction and one is more positive than the other. It is just possible that Tony Abbott, who has been deeply involved in the search even from China, released information about the Malaysia Airlines flight that Angus Houston and the agencies running the search were not comfortable discussing at this time. In that case, Abbott’s decision to release the information, while confusing, was at least accurate. It might just be that his decision was motivated out of respect for the Chinese people, whose suffering during the search has been extremely public and painful. From this perspective, Abbott’s decision to publicly contradict his own officials was motivated by a sympathetic heart.
However, it just may be that politics more than compassion was his primary motivator. Abbott is currently in China to have discussions over trade and defense with Chinese President Xi Jinping. From a foreign policy standpoint, he has a vested interest in making the best impression he can, even if that means manufacturing confidence by an untimely or errant release of information. That would make him a less admirable figure in all of this and possibly even despicable.
For the moment, though, there is no explanation for the contradiction between Abbott and Houston’s information. If it is ever explained, the hope is that the reason is a good one that will not open either man to public recrimination. But cases like CNN’s black hole coverage and Russia’s FSB conspiracy theory are less acceptable. In both cases, there is no excuse for trivializing the story. CNN at least is a news outlet that is allowed a certain amount of ridiculous coverage in order to fill airtime and satisfy viewers curiosity. The FSB, on the other hand, should have avoided such noxious conspiracy theorizing instead of risking its reputation as an intelligence organization. As the speculation over the missing Malaysia Airlines flight intensifies, it can be hoped that everyone involved in reporting will avoid the ridiculous heights that CNN, the FSB, and possibly Tony Abbott have participated in out of respect for the grieving families who, without answers, may never have the closure they deserve.
Opinion By Lydia Webb