Over-saturated television news leads to wild speculation

Malaysia Flight MH370

My heart goes out to the family and friends of the passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. It’s not everyday that a plane suddenly goes missing out of thin air. Given the advanced state of technology, it is catastrophic to think that 239 people can board a flight – as so many passengers do each day – and then suddenly vanish off the radar.

When something so surreal happens, the public wants to be informed about a series of events that, in today’s society, should not be happening. So how does the media report on something that has no clear facts or leads?

It has now been more than a week since the flight disappeared, and the wild speculations from the news are filling up pages and airtime with their own unique twist on a very horrific event.

 24-hour news cycles have led even the most established broadcasters to report on and question facts that border on absurdity. For example, on March 19 CNN newscaster Don Lemon entertained the idea that the missing flight was swallowed into a black hole on live television.

Journalism has always sought to produce factual and credible information for the public, or so I have been taught while attending journalism school. But if we are supposed to be factual and credible, doesn’t continued wild speculation on an issue where the facts are unknown somewhat discredit the discipline?

Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author in Massachusetts, has been trying to put some speculation to rest through his blog, “Ask the Pilot,” which was voted one of the 25 best of 2013 by Time magazine. Some theories he deciphers are:
• The plane “hid” beneath another plane
• The plane was stolen
• The plane flew too high and disintegrated into the atmosphere

The fact that someone with knowledge and a background in aviation actually needs to debunk such speculations makes me wonder how far news organizations will dig to keep this story running. Smith said in his blog that many of the assumptions are equal to “conspiracy mongering.”

Malaysia Flight MH370Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, similar to the one pictured, disappeared on March 8 after departing from Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Craig Silverman, founder and journalist of “Regret the Error,” an industry blog that reports on media errors and corrections, said that in situations like this, it might be best for journalists to “stay away from all the theories out there.”

“Journalists can provide the most value by staying away from the speculation, and actually focusing on all of the elements of the story so that it can actually be told in an accurate way,” said Silverman.

Timing has also played a significant role in the deepening of media speculation, according to Silverman.

“It creates even more desire for information, and yet the longer it goes on, the more people have to figure out how to fill time and pages, and meet the demand for the information,” he added.

The big question now stands: When do news organizations end the speculation? How long will news organizations keep filling time with this story?

Carla Beynon, a Calgary-based reporter and news anchor for CBC News, had the same question.

“Everyday there are small new developments that are happening, but how many developments does there need to be to keep running the story?” she said.

Even though recent evidence indicates that the plane may have crashed into the Indian Ocean, the question of “what happened?” still remains. Journalist Silverman cautioned against giving people false hope, or even making them think the absolute worst when there is no real truth right now.

Calgary Journal reporter Angie Lang is exploring media ethics as part of the Bachelor of Communication-Journalism degree at Mount Royal University.

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