The airplane that went away.

It’s March 26, 2014 today, 18 days after Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 went missing.

The Malaysian government made an announcement Monday morning that the airplane has crashed in the Indian Ocean, with 239 people on board. As the main information source for the general audience, the media has played an interesting role, especially the Chinese media.

For the past weeks, more than 20 countries has used technological resources to search for the missing airplane. Some authorities said they found possible evidences. As an ordinary citizen, however, there is not much for us to do besides following the news. However, how much of it is true? How much of it was for the sake of information, not of competition or of ratings?

Out of the 239 people on the airplane, 154 was Chinese. Since the beginning of the incident, the Chinese media has relied on information from other sources such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Reuters, BBC. The information independently put out by Chinese media was mostly sentimental and praying for the missing ones. This has been questioned by many Chinese people on Weibo and Renren, Chinese versions of Twitter and Facebook, because they think words such as “pray,” “candles” and “blessing” are used as tear gas to hide the fact that the Chinese government is not doing any actual searching.

When the information got to Beijing on March 7, Beijing Time. The instinct of a journalist guided the reporters to the airport and interview the family members who are waiting for their beloved ones to arrive. The reporters got the pictures and soundbites that they wanted. Throughout the time span while the airplane was missing, Chinese media kept reporting and releasing stories on the families and friends and how they are feeling on various kinds of media: TV and social media especially.

The video taken after Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, announced that MH370 has crashed in the Indian Ocean shows that the families did not want to be filmed. Many of them were angry and try to kick or slam the cameras that kept taking photos or videotaping them as they walked out.

I admit some of them were great stories that grab people’s attention and heart. However, I want to raise the question of journalism ethics. Do the families want to be publicized this way or did it become a way of publicizing the media company itself through “sharing” the content? Does making them tell these stories makes them hurt more? Does encouraging hope and praying, perhaps knowing there isn’t much hope for living, really give the family courage or disappointment once the result reveals.

This reminded me of the earthquake that happened in Sichuan, China on May 12, 2008. The Chinese media followed the exact same path: mourning for the dead, praying for the survived, and hoping for the ones underground. The media, especially television took this as an opportunity to do countless follow-up stories. I remember turning off the TV at one point after consuming too much of the same information over and over from different channels. What’s more, the increasing numbers of deaths and heartbreaking images of people who lost their loved ones were not only overwhelming but also not bearable once it crossed the line.

What was different about the 2008 earthquake coverage was that people were unified, because they saw effort put into it — the TV coverage constantly included heroic stories that police or citizens had rescued others from the debris. In the case of MH370, many Chinese questioned Chinese government’s effort an input in searching for the airplane, which is understandable, considering more than half of the passengers are Chinese.

The world is looking for MH370, and every bit of additional information makes the audience tickle. The public thinks that they are getting closer and closer to the truth by reading articles on possible conspiracy and possible debris found. Through the lens of the media, we are seeing more than searching for a missing airplane.

The media all around the worlds constructed a picture of “The Missing Airplane.” The Chinese media took a different angle — focusing on the sentiments of the families of the missing ones. Chicago Tribune Reporter Clarence Page writes “The public is hungry for more news than news providers have available.” This case of incident proved Chinese citizens more inquiring of information and the Chinese media need to provide more explanation to satisfy the public.

There is still much information waiting for us to discover before the mystery is solved. May the lost rest in peace.


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