The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has posed some significant hurdles for Western reporters for of a variety of reasons. Few Western reporters have sources in Malaysia. Speculation has run amok since the beginning of the story. The aircraft has not been found, creating huge logistical problems for the governments looking for the plane and for journalists trying to cover the search.
But let me start with basic issues about the reporting. I expect errors in any breaking story, but this one has had some whoppers. For example, when the Malaysian prime minister announced over the weekend that the government believed a “deliberate act” rather than an accident had occurred, ABC News used the wrong name to identify him throughout its story. If you don’t know what to call the prime minister of a country, you really have some reporting problems.
In a satirical poke at the 24/7 operations, The New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz posted an article under the headline, “Total Absence of Information About Malaysia Flight Not Hindering Twenty-Four-Hour Coverage, Cable Networks Say.” The Onion weighed in with the possibility the aircraft had passed into a time-space continuum.
Every news organization rolled in nearly every conceivable aviation expert to speculate on thin threads of information — most of them coming from leaks in Washington, D.C., where reporters had access to analysts who had seen some of the data. CNN even came up with a list of the 28 most intriguing questions. Seriously, 28?
Journalists have focused on the pilots’ possible involvement, a massive electrical outage, a terrorist attack or hijacking, and myriad other bits of hokum.
The graphics artists must have been working on fumes, having produced so many potential paths for the aircraft across a search area of millions of square miles. Kerry Sanders of MSNBC tried to demonstrate the arc of the satellite intercepts with a rope and a balloon, which made absolutely no sense and then made it worse by trying to create a computer graphic.
Then journalists started to get angry. That’s when the inevitable stories about the Malaysian government’s mistakes began. The New York Times weighed in with a story under the headline, “Series of Errors by Malaysia Mounts, Complicating the Task of Finding Flight 370.” Simply put, the news organization, along with others, started to push for U.S. officials to take over the investigation. I doubt China, which had the most passengers on the aircraft, planned to go along with that plan anytime soon.
Having reported on a number of airline safety stories for Newsweek and ABC News, I could offer some useful advice. It will take months — maybe years — before the actual story of what happened will be known. That, of course, would depend on whether the black boxes, which are actually orange, are located.
I thought the most startling story came from Stuart Leavenworth of McClatchy Newspapers in which he outlined how people with stolen passports, including two on the Malaysia Airlines flight, routinely got through security. Only 20 of 190 countries that belong to Interpol, the global police network, verify the authenticity of passports against available databases, the news organization reported.
“Drug runners, illegal immigrants and human traffickers are major users of stolen passports, but aircraft hijackers and other terrorists have also used them as part of numerous attacks worldwide,” Mr. Leavenworth wrote.
That story got my attention — much more than the endless speculation about what could have happened to the aircraft.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at [email protected]. Twitter: @charper51.