Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: It may be bad, but it's news

Reporting of airliner's loss can't ignore any of the theories.

Pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart's disappearance on a round-the-world bid in 1937 is much less of a mystery than the loss of Flight MH370
Pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart's disappearance on a round-the-world bid in 1937 is much less of a mystery than the loss of Flight MH370

The media are often criticised for accentuating the negative. In fact, all they do is reverse the adage that "no news is good news". For media purposes, good news generally speaking is no news.

The sort of people who fill in questionnaires for fun often complain that the media ignore good news, and from time to time the news industry takes them at their word and gets all Pollyanna-ish.

These experiments are short-lived. We don't mind reading or hearing that the holiday season road toll is the lowest in years, but do we really want a barrage of bulletins telling us that, "With only two hours to go, the nation is on course for another road fatality-free day"?

Of course it's different if good news is the exception rather than the rule. For instance, our tourism authorities must be tempted to rush out a press release trumpeting the fact that a whole week has gone by without a visitor to this country being raped, robbed with gratuitous violence or mauled by dogs.

And surely if a week passes without the fantastically maladroit Hekia Parata consolidating her reputation as the Minister for Making Things Worse, that should be recorded for posterity. After all, no one will have seen it coming.

At the other extreme, when terrible things constantly befall the residents of faraway places of which we know little, it's only a matter of time before compassion fatigue - or "indifference" as we used to call it - sets in. As satirist Joe Bennett put it a few years ago: "Another flood in Bangladesh? Who cares? Lots of little heads bobbing around the Ganges Delta like so many corks."

In terms of newsworthiness, the disappearance of Flight MH370 is worth any number of overloaded ferries going down in the South China Sea. This is one of those rare events that calls for saturation coverage. But because the bare facts are few and far between and not particularly enlightening, the media must report speculation, if for no other reason than to fuel our own theoretical forays. Not everyone approves of all this speculation. A Huffington Post blogger has never been "quite as disgusted as I am now while I watch these cable news channels and online publications turn the likely death of 239 people into a Tom Clancy novel. It's embarrassing, it's gross, it's almost sociopathic."

It's nothing of the kind. It's the media doing exactly what we expect and want from them. In his next paragraph the blogger rather schizophrenically makes the case for the defence: "There's no question that this is one of the most confounding aviation mysteries since Amelia Earhart."

Indeed, although as mysteries go Earhart's disappearance is closer to "What the #@%* have I done with my car keys?" than MH370's vanishing act. Our focus is not on the likely death of 239 people, it's on an intriguing and very 21st-century mystery. Mysteries are blank canvasses on to which we project our hopes, fears, bees in bonnets and theories, some of which no doubt bear out the old saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

(It's also worth pointing out that at least some of this Clancyesque speculation is driven by an urge to come up with scenarios in which those 239 people could still be alive.)

The blogger is taking pot shots at the messenger, since most of the speculation is coming from politicians, officials and experts; the media are simply reporting it.

He and other commentators have accused the media of engaging in "character assassination" by zeroing in on the pilot and co-pilot. The media didn't search the pilots' houses; the Malaysian authorities did.

The media didn't invent this quote; they merely reported what US House of Representatives homeland security committee chairman Michael McCaul said publicly: "I think, from all the information I've been briefed on, from high levels within Homeland Security, national counter-terrorism, the entire intelligence community, that something was going on with the pilot. I think this all leads towards the cockpit, with the pilot and co-pilot."

What are the media supposed to do? Ignore all this stuff and issue reports along the lines of, "In the absence of concrete, verifiable developments, we have nothing to add to what we told you three days ago concerning the fate of the missing plane. Nor will we be canvassing the views of aviation or terrorism experts or reporting theories put forward by Malaysian Government ministers, the director of the FBI and Conservative Party leader Colin Craig (although that one's a real jaw-dropper).

"Instead we're crossing live to Nuku'alofa, where a crowd has gathered to watch the King of Tonga in procession from his palace."

- NZ Herald

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