The major news networks’ reliance on snazzy infographics and extreme conjecture in the coverage of Malaysia Airlines’s flight 370 is alarming. It’s downright crazy when you realise CNN’s American feed all but ignored a live press conference where President Obama addressed the developments in Ukraine, instead opting for more flight 370 conjecture.
Look, I get it: bundle a missing plane and the not-so-gentle suggestions that a crazed pilot, a tech-savvy terrorist or a raging fire led to the flight’s disappearance and you have weeks of TV-ratings gold.
While we at Monocle seem to have avoided the trap of conjecture-driven, wall-to-wall coverage (easy enough when we don’t have a 24-hour news hole to fill), CNN has leveraged the “what ifs?” around flight 370’s saga into a near 100% spike in primetime viewership. Literally. The network’s ratings have doubled in the past few weeks.
CNN isn’t the only culprit here. Stateside, both Fox News and MSNBC seem to have taken to rumours and sometimes whimsy in order drive their coverage of the events as they unfold. And they’ve all been derided for it. Media watchers and even comedians have weighed in, suggesting that the networks should be ashamed of themselves. But, should they?
Long ago I had a journalism professor who told me that the media shouldn’t ever tell us what to think but, instead, what to think about. By covering the jet’s strange disappearance and feeding our info-driven, social-media-tempered minds with drivel about what could have happened, they’ve left us with something far bigger to think about.
The story, on the surface, doesn’t concern anything but a missing plane, but dig deeper and the story is actually about us. All of this coverage. All of this extreme fear mongering. All of the baited breathing for non-developments only works because we let it. We watch – rubber-necking until the last words roll off an anchor’s tongue.
So, the media are telling us what to think about but it’s not about aviation safety or terrorists. They’re capturing just how obsessed we are with wild and vicarious notions of the world around us. I think it’s a warning in much the same way famed Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan saw it when he said: “A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.”
We’re human. We want answers. And for that, we’ve only ourselves to blame.
Tristan McAllister is Monocle's transport editor.