Missing plane story shows fascination with 'disaster porn'
On Monday morning, the prime minister of Malaysia announced that missing flight 370 was officially assumed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean. I received news alerts on my phone saying that officials had concluded "beyond any reasonable doubt" that the plane had gone down and that there were no survivors. Around midafternoon, a radio dj was discussing theories with callers as to why the plane had gone down. By the time the evening news rolled around, the lead story about the plane wasn't that it had been lost, but that the families of the passengers had been informed via text message.
One by one, the stories disappeared. BBC had been running three or four articles on different aspects of the search. By midnight, there was only one saying the search was called off temporarily due to weather. The plane dropped several spots on the New York Times, and the article about the announcement centered on the grieving families. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post also focused on the grieving relatives - a clear sign that a story is winding down. By Tuesday morning, it was clear that the search for Malaysian air flight 370 was coming to the end of its media life cycle.
Despite the many unanswered questions, people seem to be losing interest. The plane will draw headlines when it's found, and there will be stories about the passengers, families and search techniques in the coming days, but Flight 370 won't be the lead story on the evening news anymore.
The story of the plane is a perfect example of both the media and their audiences' short attention spans, and it raises questions about whether or not the plane should have had the place in the news that it did.
It's easy to see why this captured the world's attention. Flight 370 was a 21st century mystery with all the hallmarks of a good news story: intrigue, issues with international cooperation, fascinating technology, questions of terrorism and a race against the clock.
The narrative was simple- a plane disappeared. Things don't disappear anymore. You can track you cell phone, your car, even your dog via satellite and GPS. How could we lose a jumbo jet? A plane crash is also indisputably a tragedy. When a plane crashes, it deserves to make the news.
But in the time that Flight 370 was the top story at a number of American news agencies, a European country was invaded and partially annexed. A dozen or so died in protests in Venezuela. Turkey tried to shut down access to Twitter. It was announced that control of the internet would be turned over to an international body. Egypt sentenced hundreds of opposition demonstrators to death. Some of the best evidence yet for the Big Bang Theory was released.
Flight 370 commanded top headlines every day because it was a simple narrative that many people all over the world could relate to. A plane crash is a common nightmare. It's also a tragedy without the political underpinnings of a civil war in the Middle East or uprisings in Eastern Europe. In America, we watched the disaster of Flight 370 unfold as though it were a television special. It was dramatic and heart-wrenching.
The media's (and our own) fascination with 'disaster porn' is well documented. You don't have to go too far to find it- on Monday night I watched clips of enormous mudslides destroying towns on repeat during a feature about during a feature about the deadly slide in Washington. Both the people who report and read the news are attracted to these kinds of stories.
The real problem with our addiction to stories like Flight 370 isn't that they push stories like Ukraine out of the top spot, but that they teach us to expect a world where issues are black and white and the events around us can be easily summarized. The evidence that led authorities to presume to Flight 370 had crashed has been out for days, and we're no closer to finding the plane or determining the cause of its failure, but from the perspective of many, the plane is "confirmed" to have crashed. It's possible that we'll never know what caused Flight 370 to go down, and that's difficult to accept.
Likewise, it's hard to consider the complexity of the events happening in places like Syria, Egypt, Ukraine and even in our own political system. We tend to jump to conclusions when a dictator is deposed, when a mission is declared over, when someone new is elected or when statements are taken out of context. Very little about our world, from local politics to ancient history can be explained in this good vs. evil context. Hopefully, our generation, with the unprecedented resources available to us, can do more to embrace the complexity of our world.
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