What We Might Learn from the Malaysian Airline Tragedy

malaysia-airlines-boeing-777 150pixChris Byrnes – ByrnesMedia

I was in the US when the tragic story of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 broke on March 8th. Almost immediately many radio, television and social media sites moved  quickly to cover this story, and some, like CNN and Fox, went to wall to wall coverage of this story with little or no facts. As the hours and days dragged on and few new facts emerged it was interesting to watch and listen to how the various media outlets handled this story.

All we really knew was that the flight took off from Kuala Lumpur a little after midnight on March 8, carrying 239 people, en route to Beijing. Shortly after 1AM, the plane sent its last automated message via something called the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. At some point around that time, someone in the cockpit said, “alright, goodnight” to air traffic control. Less than an hour into the flight, the plane’s transponder stopped transmitting. About 90 minutes after takeoff, military radar picked up the craft over the Strait of Malacca. Some 6 hours later, a satellite detected the last signal from the aircraft, which indicated that it was somewhere roughly between Kazakhstan and the southern Indian Ocean.

Typically, there are two ways media outlets choose to cover a story like this: they either report the facts and what they really know, which often leads to boring coverage and people tuning out, or they use the few bits of information as the launching pad to spin a wild and captivating fairy tale. Based on what I saw and heard many of the major US media outlets choose the latter.

Now, this was a big story with all the mystery and intrigue that goes with it. This may turn out to be one of the most puzzling aviation mysteries since the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. So it deserved to be covered, but from what I saw, it quickly got out of control.

CNN was running huge graphics titled “The Mystery of Flight 370” along with “Breaking News Alerts” flashing across the screen, while the news anchors stood in front of a 3 dimensional map of South East Asia as they rehashed the handful of known verifiable facts, and then embellished them with an array of theories. At one point they even had an expert demonstrating how to disable a Boeings 777’s transponder. As someone who spends a lot of time on planes I would prefer that most people not know how to do this! For a while, a number of news outlets were speculating that this could be a terrorist attack, but in looking at the 100 large commercial airline accidents worldwide between 2000 and 2009 the causes were found to be as follows: Pilot error: 54%, Mechanical failures: 24%, Sabotage (explosive devices/shoot downs/hijackings): 9% and weather related accidents accounted for 8% of all commercial airline crashes.

All of the cable channels brought in “analysts” and “experts,” who were delivering their theories on what happened to this ill-fated flight. Pilots and aviation experts, FBI agents and politicians, all performing in front of the camera, spouting thousands of words that could and should have been boiled down to just three: “I don’t know.”

Even as I write this article we still do not truly know where this plane is and what happened to it. There seems to be credible evidence based on satellite imagery and analysis by British satellite firm Inmarsat that indicates the plane ended its eight-hour flight in the deep, remote waters of the Indian Ocean, about 1,500 miles west of Perth Australia, with no survivors.

It’s possible that the pilot or terrorists commandeered the plane, took it to a top secret location, and intend to pack it with explosives and slam it into a city but that seems unlikely. At this point we do not know anything for sure, but the most likely scenario is that the plane encountered some kind of problem and was turned around to head for a safe landing spot. It appears that it overflew this runway and carried on until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the Indian Ocean.

So why are we sifting through the piles of theories and giving so much attention to the most outlandish and remarkable ones? The answer to that is as obvious as it is depressing. The media likes the astounding and scandalous explanations because they drive ratings. The public likes them because they are exciting.

Many people felt that CNN overplayed their hand with wall to wall coverage and Fox news did what they typically do and went for the sensational. But the big winners in all of this were the media outlets who enjoyed a huge ratings boost. For example, CNN enjoyed an 85% bump in ratings in adults 25-54. The BBC’s coverage of this tragedy has brought more traffic to its website than any story since the Japanese Tsunami, and Twitter saw some of its biggest traffic yet regarding this subject and the theories around what happened to the ill-fated flight.

CNN was publicly criticized for devoting so many hours of programming to the missing plane and some media commentators, including Howard Hurts, suggested CNN became “all-plane all the time coverage” at the expense of good journalism. He said, “we’re falling into the trap of filling airtime with facts, or pseudo-facts, or speculation that turns out not to be true.”

All this got me thinking about the importance of every media outlet having a written plan on how they will cover major events and what they need in place to ensure things go smoothly. Here are some suggestions:

Have a written policy manual: It seems like a no brainer, but unless you have a clear written news policy that details how you will cover particular news story and all your news staff are on the same page then you are asking for trouble. One great way to get started is to have your staff brainstorm what they and their families would want to know to help then get through a major snow storm, tornado, flood, or an ice storm if it struck your broadcast area. Ideally all your staff should be allocated a task or tasks depending on the situation. The News Director calls the shots, and he/she may send reporters to the scene but be sure to think about where the injured will go. Often it is to the local hospital so sending someone there will likely get you some firsthand accounts from those directly involved which is often compelling radio. Also people who were on the scene with the victims often go to the hospital to be with them, and they can be a great source for information. Also the hospital is where you will get accurate information about the number of injuries and fatalities from hospital officials. Part of that plan should deal with what happens when the phone and cell lines go down. Depending on the disaster you may be challenged by technology or a lack there of. So be sure to have Skype installed in your control room so listeners can connect with you that way using smart phones or laptops using WiFi to tell you what is happening. Also find a local Ham Radio Operator in the area who is prepared to help you get information to the radio station when all else fails. Even if the cell network crashes listeners can still send you text messages but you need an account setup at the station. You also need an updated list of all the local officials including the Community Emergency Monitoring Coordinator. This is the person who will communicate with the Emergency Management Office at the Provincial level. Having great relationships with the local police, fire chief and other local officials will be key to getting information quickly so you can use the power of radio to inform your listeners. Lastly this policy documents needs to be reviewed every three months and updated accordingly.

Report the facts: Tell us what you know and, if possible, how this impacts your audience. The ability to localise a global story or globalise a local story is also critical. In this case, the sooner you can establish if there were any Canadians on board this flight or if there were friends or relatives living in your listening area who knew people who may have been on this flight and are able to confirm those facts the better.

You don’t have to be first: In this always on instant world we live in today there is a tendency to rush the story to air without confirming the facts. The need to be first does not outweigh the need to be right so my suggestion is that it would be prudent to wait the few additional minutes it takes to check sources and confirm the details rather than rushing the story to air, and then having to make corrections and apologise to your audience later. When there is loss of life you are better to be last and right than first and wrong. You don’t beat the competition by being wrong. You beat the competition when they’re wrong by being right.

Be careful about using Social Media for news tips:  Treat social media posts as a tip to be confirmed, and do not ever use that as the only source. A lot of the information blasted out of social media is either wrong or misleading so getting a lead from Facebook or Twitter is great, but you need to confirm the details before going to air with them. Traditional media such as radio and television is held to a higher standard. A very wise News Director told me many years ago that “No one remembers you were first. But they’ll never forget you were wrong.”

Use Social Media Effectively: The best way to use social media is to reach those people who are not listening to your radio station. If you have breaking news get it on the air and get it on Social Media as well. Done right you will get lots more people tuning into your station to find out the details. All too often in the rush to feed the “on air beast” we forget about the other channels available to us. Social media should not be an afterthought anymore. It needs to be part of your plan to bring people to your station in time of breaking news coverage. If you are not sending break news alters to your social media channels then chances are your competition will be, and they may end up with the additional tuning instead.

Avoid speculation: When there are so few facts known, it is easy to make the mistake of speculating what might have happened. This is a mistake and there is no reason for falling into this trap. Train your anchors and reporters so they know how to avoid this. Its fine to ask one person what they think may have happened, but when this becomes the key part of the coverage then the story, and possibly your credibility, is on that slippery slope we all hope to avoid.

There are always other stories to cover: Today more than ever, there are always other stories to fill the news run. The key is to keep a balance in the type of story you cover and how much time or ink you dedicate to each story. With electronic media, our strength is our ability to keep people up to date as new information becomes available.

Screen your experts: If you are going to interview an expert you would be wise to know what they are going to say, especially if you are putting them live to air.

Recap the facts: For a major breaking story remember there will be people tuning in who know nothing about this big breaking story. So be sure to recap the facts on a regular basis, particularly if the facts are changing

Promote in an appropriate manner: Radio wins when people listen for longer periods of time. So if there is going to be a press conference and your station is going to carry it live then be sure to promote this, both on the air and via your social media channels.

Listen to Emergency Radio messages: If your police, fire or EMO are still operating on frequencies that can be monitored via a scanner, someone from your news staff needs to be listening. Often you can pick up important information which you can then verify and report to air.

Work the phones: Remember the old saying that anyone with a phone has a microphone to your show. If a disaster happens in your broadcast area ask your listeners to call in and tell you what they are seeing and hearing. This is a great way to get ahead of your competition and get firsthand accounts of events as they unfold. By the way, it is important to only put people on the air who have new information and can actually see what is happening, so this is where having someone to screen your calls can be important.

Trust your producer: If you are operating a talk station and have a producer, you need to trust that person and if they tell you to put a call on the air you should follow those instructions. CFRB in Toronto missed a golden opportunity when that Air France plane skidded off the runaway in August of 2005. The producer told the host he has an eye witness who had spoken to some of the passengers, but the host did not believe the caller and chastised the caller on air for phoning in false information. That caller hung up but later the host had to apologise because the caller was correct and CFRB missed the opportunity to break the news that passengers had walked off the plane and were safe.

Monitor the competition: When a major story breaks you need to be monitoring the competition to see what they have. Make sure you have the equipment and manpower in place so you can keep an ear on your competition.

Be careful taking a live feed from Fox or CNN: If it is a major international story such as the Malaysian plane disappearance I have noticed that some radio stations simply take a feed from a television station. However, television reporters often are speaking to pictures that are showing on the screen and that does not translate well to radio. I recommend you record the television audio and replay the appropriate bits, but do not turn over control of your station to them, especially when the breaking news is local. In this case, both CNN and Fox got some of the facts wrong which would reflect badly on any radio station who took those television feeds.

Think about how the event impacts your listeners: When you tell listeners what they need to know to keep them safe or help them get to safe ground or home quickly they will appreciate it, and become more loyal to your channel. If this means road closures or delays then you need to be giving your listeners useful information to help them plan their day. Using the Air France example, that incident closed the 401 westbound out of Toronto for a few hours which created all kinds of headaches for those people who work in Toronto but use the 401 to get home.

Ask what we are missing: As the News Director it is important that you ask yourself this important question. Remember, no one person can likely think about all the angles on their own. It allows you to take the 30,000 foot view on the story and often asking yourself this important question works just as well on small stories as it does the major stories.   Seek input from others in the building who may have suggestions on things the station could do to better relate to the audience.

Conclusion: I have only scratched the surface of the things you need to consider when developing plans to cover a major manmade or natural disaster, whether it happens in your broadcast area or far away as was the case with the Malaysian Airlines disaster. Radio is the best one-to-many medium there is in my opinion, and it really comes into its own when a disaster strikes and people need to be informed. But it is our responsibility to have solid plans in place and to test those plans from time to time. I will finish by telling you that I have never been so happy to get back across the border and into Canada so I could tune into some of my favourite news stations and hear those familiar voices delivering content that was measured and factual. I think that overall we are better served in Canada when it comes to news on radio and television.