Why the press can’t help but speculate about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight

Did you hear?

A piece of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was spotted by the Vietnamese Navy. The plane made an emergency landing in Nanning, China. It may be in North Korea. Or taken over by Iranian terrorists. No, it just completely vanished.

If you want to know how much people are thinking and obsessing about a story, just count the rumors labeled as reporting, the baseless “expert” punditry, and the conspiracy theories it inspires. By that measure, the missing jet is occupying more of our collective consciousness than any other story in the world right now. (Take that, Putin.)

It’s a global story due to the fact that it connects so many countries thanks to the departure and destination locations, and all of the nationalities represented by passengers and its flight path.

A woman in Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, in front of a display showing information about possible flight positions of Flight 370 (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The insatiable desire for information is partly because the situation is so mysterious. Couple that with the fact that the flow of new, credible details comes in the form of a drip rather than a firehose. Now mix it all together with fears of terrorism and airplane crashes and you have a perfect recipe for rumor and conspiracy theories. (There is something about air crashes, in particular, that brings out the worst in conspiracy theories.)

A major factor driving speculation is that the central character is missing. The story is the fact that the plane is gone. There is nothing to train a live camera on, to tweet in real-time, or crowdsource.

This story is about something that has disappeared — and what a terrible mismatch that is for the way the news cycle, social media and the human brain work.

No new facts

The result, along with all of the above mentioned rumors that make their way into the press, is that you get segments like this one on CNN, where experts are trotted out fill airtime by speculating (emphasis mine):

RICHARD QUEST, CNN: … So, many questions, none of which, frankly, we’re going to be able to answer for you tonight. But many questions are raised by this new development. For instance, not least, how can a plane go like this and no one notices it’s off flight plan?

The former director general of IATA says he finds it incredible that fighter jets were not scrambled as soon as the aircraft went off course. I asked Giovanni Bisignani for his gut feeling about what happened to the plane.

GIOVANNI BISIGNANI, FORMER DIRECTOR GENERAL, IATA: It is difficult to imagine a problem in a structure failure of the plane. The Boeing 777 is a modern plane, so it’s not the case. It’s not a problem of a technical problem to an engine because in that case, the pilot has perfectly time to address this and to inform the air traffic control.

We have no answers for you, so let’s bring in someone who also has no answers or new information, but has a credential that seems relevant. Let’s get a “gut feeling” because we have nothing else.

With only so much actual news to portion out, you end up being proffered the worst kind of angles and programming. Anyone with any kind of connection can expect a phone call. If they can come up with a view of What It Means, then sign ‘em up. Come on down, John Little from the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

“We’ve built this facade that man is in control of all things,” he told The New Republic, (which put an awful headline on the story). “Well, look at this: a Boeing 777 falls off the map and half the world is looking for it and they can’t find anything! If this can happen, well, then, maybe there is a place for the individual.”

Human nature

Though I hate the rumors and overreaching on a story like this, I see the fundamentally human process driving empty quotes and unsubstantiated reporting.

This is how we cope with big, uncertain events: we grasp for ways to relate, to process them through our own lens. And when there is a dearth of information, we push, prod and search and speculate. We fill the empty air of cable news and conversation with anything.

In searching for answers, we reach for anything that can seemingly make sense of what we don’t know. We also engage in this process together, by sharing and communicating.

“[W]e are fundamentally social beings and we possess an irrepressible instinct to make sense of the world,” wrote Nicholas DiFonzo, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of “The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors.” “Put these ideas together and we get shared sensemaking: We make sense of life together. Rumor is perhaps the quintessential shared sensemaking activity. It may indeed be the predominant means by which we make sense of the world together.”

In this respect, the media coverage mimics our innate desire to fill the empty space with something. People are demanding answers. They are hitting refresh again and again, looking for new information. (Here I am, doing much the same thing — except I’m covering the coverage of the thing that’s disappeared, and trying to make sense of why we’re seeing so much rumor and speculation.)

David Gallo helped lead the team that solved the mystery of an Air France flight that went missing in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. Speaking to PRI, he cited the pressure, the scrutiny that those leading this current search effort will face. But he could have just as easily been talking about the editors, reporters and producers trying to meet audience demands.

“It’s horrible,” he said. “The pressure is building from the families and friends and loved ones of the victims. The pressure is building from the international community. The questions are, ‘Are you confident? Are you hiding something? When are we going to have some answers?’ ”

The difference is the search team won’t proffer answers or speculation until they have something to share.

Tom McGeveran, the co-founder and editor of Capital New York, held up this kind of restraint up as a model for the press:

It is simple advice. To practice it, journalists have to channel their innate sense-making and social tendencies into real reporting, and mix in a measure of restraint.

Put another way: Be more of a reporter, and less of a human.

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  • Lawrence Austen

    All this speculation and rumour-mongoring is not doing good for anyone and is rather pathetic in my opinion. While it is essential that a variety of possible scenarios and eventualities should be considered, leave it to the authorities, not some “pundit”or other hack looking to spout forth to some or other “news team” or anchor looking for a juicy story! It is not that unusual for an airplane to disappear without trace in the ocean and for evidence or bits of debris to appear months or years later – the Springbok that crashed off the coast of Port Elizabeth in the 1960′s and the Heldeberg near Mauritius in the 1980′s. Why is it necessary that anyone or everyone needs to have something tittilating, scandalous or disastrous to fuel the day? We already have the blessing of “living in interesting times.”

  • http://www.ktvz.com Barney Lerten

    Yep, if there were answers, as in most tragedies, we’d grieve, and move on through normal cycles. The lack of resolution fuels all of this.

  • ujur

    The real reason why people are obsessed to the story is because NO ONE knows anything about the plane. This has never happened before. No one knows for sure if it crashed into water or landed in somewhere. No one knows exactly how long it flew after disappearing from radar, and no one knows the proximate final destination of the plane. Nothing, absolutely nothing – this is the cause of huge curiosity.

  • John Gholdston

    Well said.

  • http://www.CraigSilverman.ca CraigSilverman

    A fair point, John. I don’t think it’s a matter having to choose between going silent or putting out whatever you can get your hands on. There is a middle ground there, where the press can focus on pushing things forward by turning up new evidence, and by telling the stories of those aboard.

    As for which is more frequent (finding wreckage or not finding it), I will hold off on speculating, as I don’t have the answer :)

  • John Gholdston

    While I agree that being bombarded about something that has not happened appears ludicrous, it would be even more egregious to ignore a situation until something definitive has occurred. In 1975 Spain’s Francisco Franco hovered near death for so long newsrooms across the country began a satirical “Still Not Dead” campaign, which after his death, morphed into a running SNL “Still Dead” catchphrase.
    If we were told a commercial flight with hundreds of people disappeared but then we got nothing from the press for weeks, we would either forget about the incident or presume wreckage had been found and we missed the story.
    Realistically, not finding wreckage is a bigger story than finding it. Which of the two is the norm?