Media and Malaysian tragedy: A look at coverage of MH17 and MH370
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Media and Malaysian tragedy: A look at coverage of MH17 and MH370

Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian people suffered two shocking tragedies this year. The disappearance of flight MH370 continues to be a painful mystery, and the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine came as a another brutal shock, leaving many in Malaysia to ask “Why is this happening again?” Both crashes were covered relentlessly by traditional media outlets and on social media, with stories, photos, and speculation being tweeted and retweeted constantly, especially in the immediate aftermath.

There have been differences in the coverage of the two crashes, which some attribute to the nature of them. MH370 seemed to get under people’s skin because of the mystery, and the horror that a plane could go down without being found for months. MH17 was a terrible, criminal event but there is less mystery, leaving somewhat less room for speculation and conspiracy theories.

“Probably what’s struck me the most about MH17 is the fairly simple, if you can call it that, narrative that’s floated to the forefront of the story, MH370 being a total mystery with no leads whatsoever still to this day [for] any particularly convincing explanation,” said Malaysian journalist Amirul Ruslan via email. “Both incidents attracted more than their fair share of ignorant commenters and conspiracy theorists, but I’d say even the wildest MH17 follower does not dispute the nature of the tragedy.”

The international media has focused heavily on the crash, though the emphasis is largely on the question of who is responsible, the response from American, European, and Australian leaders, and the high number of European casualties. Less attention has been given to the Malaysian angle of the story, as the population recovers from another airline tragedy.

Malaysian reaction

The reaction in Malaysia has been one of shock and anger, according to media watchers.

“The sense I’m getting is what just happened? What is this? A lot of people wanting justice, some accountability,” said an artist-activist who goes by Creatrix Tiara. “A lot of people are frustrated with Russia and how the search is being held up. With Islam, the culture is that you bury the dead quickly. The fact that that hasn’t been able to happen is very frustrating.”

“People are in shock,” she added. “‘Why is it happening so soon after MH370? It’s not fair.'”

A significant difference between the Malaysian reaction to MH370 and MH17 is the amount of blame directed at Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian government. Niki Cheong, a journalist and lecturer, said local sentiment has been kinder toward both institutions during the MH17 aftermath, as many believe the blame belongs with whoever shot down the plane.

“I think initially it became ‘oh no, not again,’ but that changed to anger because it was clear this time it was not our fault,” Cheong said. “Look, the fault has to lie on the person who clicked on the trigger. It wasn’t on the airplane or the airline. … The first few days there was a lot of solidarity with the government. Because we can find someone to blame, people are willing to be more supportive of Malaysia Airlines and the government. Back then, because people needed to place blame, the government took a huge beating. But I suppose they’ve also learned from experience.”

Though Malaysia Airlines appears to not be at fault in the MH17 crash, the back-to-back tragedies in a span of only a few months may cause a lasting negative impact.

“The public’s trust in Malaysia Airlines suffered, even though they are not at fault in both, I think,” said Wan Arief Imran Wan Razali, a pilot. “Obviously with MH17, they’ve been following everything perfectly, somebody shot them down, that’s it.” He attributed skepticism about the airlines to a lack of public knowledge about aviation in general.

“I think the public needs to be more educated about aviation. The majority don’t know anything about aviation, which is why they keep on blaming the airlines,” he said.

International media

Some are critical of the lack of human interest coverage on Malaysia, lamenting that so few people know about the Southeast Asian nation beyond what has been published about it in relation to the two crashes.

“So much of the coverage with MH370 was, in my experience, the first time people heard of Malaysia,” Tiara said. “That’s why you get ‘Oh, it’s a Muslim country, it must be Muslim terrorists.’ ‘Oh, it must be that country with the cursed airline.'”

Tiara, who started the MH17 fundraiser for the Malaysian AIDS Foundation and runs the fact-checking site with Ruslan, said some of the rumors and speculation were driven by a lack of global knowledge about Malaysia.

“People were jumping on every possible rumor or idea [and there was] a lack of context, a lack of care, a lack of consideration” after MH370, she said.

“I think a lot of it is people don’t really know about Malaysia, in my experience living and traveling overseas, people are like, ‘what is that? Where is that?’ It’s not currently at war, it’s not hosting a major sports event. People haven’t had Malaysia on their radar. To use an overused term, it’s not sexy.”

Both stories received global attention, due to the international casualties and the questions they raised about airline safety and who was to blame for the crashes. MH17 in particular prompted much speculation about Western response to the violence and instability in Ukraine, making that a more prominent focus than the grief of Malaysians.

“[T]he large number of Western casualties in the case of MH17 means it’s a ball being picked up by European, particularly UK, press agencies,” Ruslan said. “Human interest angles on MH370, such as personality profiles on the pilot and co-pilot, swung dramatically from overwhelmingly positive to overwhelmingly negative once stories dried out and suspicion needed a face or two; in the case of MH17, I doubt we’ll see any particularly wild theories come up.”

Cheong said it makes sense that the international media have focused less on Malaysia, and more on the potential ramifications of the crash.

“From a journalism perspective, what is a news story? The only thing that’s Malaysian about this story is that it’s a Malaysian airline,” Cheong said. “Because [there were] so many Dutch people on the plane, it’s become a very European issue. [Malaysia is] such a small country compared to the geopolitical issues, such as what’s happening with Russia and the U.S., I think people are focused more on that than on Malaysia.”

“I think it’s a news cycle thing,” Cheong went on to say. “The first thing you have to think about is what else is going on. We know where the plane is. The news is out. So many world leaders have spoken out in condemnation. There is a feeling that the news is over. Three hundred people died in this plane crash and it’s a tragedy, but what’s still happening in Gaza with Israel is just as bad, if not worse.”

The perils of the 24-hour news cycle

Coverage of the MH370 tragedy dominated newspapers and news sites around the world, some with credible information, some with unverified stories, and some with outright conspiracy theories. Those that carried the less-newsworthy or unverified claims were rightly condemned.

“The coverage of Malaysia, and the scrutiny on the Malaysian government’s actions in light of the tragedy, has been fair, in my opinion, but the angles have not — they’ve all been repetitive from the start, with international media and local media alike echoing outdated questions days after they should’ve stopped asking (whether or not MAS’ route was safe, etc),” Ruslan said. “However, I’m of the opinion that the backlash to the saturated media coverage of MH370 by the likes of CNN et al has resulted in world press coverage on MH17 being noticeably more sensitive.”

The fact that MH17’s whereabouts are known has helped quell the rumor mill, though not completely.

“The one thing that was similar was the spreading of unverified information,” Cheong said. “I think we saw that in the wee hours of the morning with MH17. … A lot of images were being spread very quickly. They weren’t verified in the early stages. It wasn’t technically a war zone, images like that for me don’t add to the journalism. There are many other ways of them showing brutalities than showing body parts flying around.”

But some lessons appeared to have been learned from MH370.

“At least this time, it’s harder to make speculations,” Cheong said. “The good thing was, with MH17 people were a bit more conscious of what they were showing. I saw more questions asking if this was verified information. I saw a lot more reminders not to post gruesome photographs.”

But the urge to share sensational and gory news persists. Cheong, who teaches at a university level, said in speaking with his students it’s clear that these graphic news items are often what people want.

“The thing that interests them most is blood, gore, and death. That’s what’s going to get retweeted rather than a regular comment. There’s a presumption that people like these things,” he said.

Razali encouraged people to not buy into everything they see on social media, but instead take a critical approach to what they read.

“They need to be more patient in waiting for the news instead of accepting everything,” he said. “I would love to see them doing their own research into the news.”

Ruslan expressed his own reservations about the stories being perpetuated in traditional news media, and thus shared through social media worldwide.

“As with any world news topic, the need to be able to source from multiple credible perspectives is important, but in MH17 I’m concerned about the heavy pro-NATO, pro-US bent on nearly every news item,” he said. “There’s a lack of credible, persuasive journalism on the other side to provide more of a balanced viewpoint, which may well lead to all this becoming desensitized to a media consumer who takes in news coverage of the tragedy without following it closely — even MH370 had the opposing views of Chinese/Malaysian/Western media that tempered the crazier moments of the news cycle.”

For her part, Tiara said she hopes there will be greater interest in Malaysia than these two crashes.

“I want to people know that there’s so much in Malaysia more than the two planes, more than political struggles. I just wish people would engage more with Malaysia … actually give a damn about it,” she said.

It seems likely that while MH17 will stay in the news for some time to come, the public obsession will recede more quickly than it did with MH370. Cheong said there may be some fatigue with the tragedies dominating headlines, and that the concrete news about MH17 may be a way for people to find some peace about the earlier tragedy.

“Because they didn’t get closer with MH370, I wonder if moving on from MH17 is a way of getting closure on MH370.”