The media's shameful Malaysia Airlines coverage: Gawking at a foreign disaster

News outlets have used the tragedy of a lost airplane to paint an offensive picture of an ill-understood country

Published March 16, 2014 10:59AM (EDT)

You probably know a lot about Malaysian flight MH370 by now. Like, for example, that there were 239 people on board; that the plane was en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur; that it vanished shortly after takeoff and hasn’t since been located, as of this writing; that it is believed the flight was deliberately veered off-course.

You might also have learned that two stolen passports were used to board the plane by Iranians, who were probably seeking asylum; that the Malaysian government is corrupt and ridiculous; that China has voiced displeasure with the progress of the search; that the haunting last words transmitted by the plane were “all right, good night.” Most of all, you've probably learned by now that everybody likes conspiracy theories.

You know all of those things because over the past week the media has produced a huge amount of reportage and analysis about MH370's disappearance — and, with it, no small bit of imaginative speculation. By “the media,” I’m referring mainly to American media of the online variety (that is to say, digital publications like Buzzfeed, Slate, Business Insider, and so on); but also to cable news outlets such as CNN. Combined, these ventures constitute the major pipeline of information that I depend on, like a lot of people of my age (24), education level (college graduate), and occupation (media).

However, unlike a lot of people from those demographic buckets here in New York, I am from Malaysia, born and raised, although I’ve been in this country for a half-decade now. Because Malaysia is one of those nations that doesn’t often find itself a part of the media’s vocabulary -- its far less a source of fascination than China, Russia, or North Korea, for example -- my last week of media consumption has been nothing short of surreal. For one thing, words currently splashed on the front pages of the news sites I frequent are ones that I haven’t seen since I left home: "Subang," "Malaysian Airlines," "Hishamuddin." Even more surprising to me, however, is that Americans suddenly give a damn -- and furthermore, claim to know a thing or two -- about the small, random, messy Southeast Asian country I call home.

Of course, Americans and their supporting journalistic outlets have purported to care about other countries in the past. But they’ve more routinely cared -- or at the very least, pretended to care, as Sarah Kendzior would say -- about the dramatized ebbs and flows of 24-hour news that started with CNN and was later perfected by online journalism. I am no stranger to the process: In my attempt to participate in this society, I fought hard to care in the exact same way. When the Arab Spring erupted, I listened intensely. When Ukraine got complicated, I gazed hard at the images of protest and violence. Over time, the editorial arc of foreign crises achieved a discernible Platonic form to my eyes, evolving from information gathering to speculative analysis to imaginative theorizing to simply running the click-bait, disaster-porn, grief-gauntlet bonanza.

On a theoretical level, sensationalism and its function in the marketplace of information makes sense to me. Journalism is a business, and you need to retain eyeballs if you’re going to get the ad revenue necessary to fund “actual” reporting, whatever that may be. But even when these publications attempt to actually report, to produce work that somehow makes all this disaster-porn and rage-baiting worthwhile, the product somehow feels either deeply lacking or profoundly unsettling.

When Slate publishes pieces that used the MH370 incident to bring attention to Thailand’s booming passport-forging industry, and the tricky business of dealing with stolen passports, the reporting turned out to be half-hearted descriptions without real exploration, routine didacticism without any actual value. When Businessweek ran a piece titled “Why Malaysia Will Say Almost Nothing About the Missing Plane,” written by an American journalist who focuses on Southeast Asia, it smacked of condescension… to my ears, at least. In part, it has to do with tone. The journalist curtly describes Malaysia’s political, social, economic and cultural conditions as matter of fact to explain the government’s opacity -- even though the descriptions he provides are, by and large, only partial truths. As always, the realities are much more complicated, and his final analysis ultimately provides a chaotic and subtly malevolent picture of my home country. Of course, the picture presented is unrecognizable to me.

Condescension was similarly rampant in this CNN interview with the former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. The retired official, a rough-and-tumble American with a befuddled façade, was given ample space to blame “national pride” for the Malaysian authorities' unwillingness to allow other countries to lead the investigation. While there is some truth in that assessment, it’s a horrifyingly eager reduction of a whole country -- with a complicated place in the international political ecosystem -- into an Eastern caricature. The CNN host let the statement stand.

Disaster porn reached its peak last week with a Buzzfeed article titled “A Look at Some of the 239 people on board the Missing Malaysian Airlines Flight.” The article’s construction is a mainstay of online media at this point — more image than text, more visceral than reflective, featuring images pulled from Facebook accounts linked, directly or indirectly, to those lost. Looking at the faces of people, most of them from my home country, being held up to evoke a sense of manufactured sympathy — it felt not just raw, but also exploitative.

Perhaps it’s different when it’s your own country. And perhaps I’m guilty of hypocrisy here – after all, I was complicit in the very same gawking I now critique when it came weeks ago to Venezuela and the Ukraine. Or maybe it’s the fact that there is and always will be an insurmountable wall separating Americans and non-Americans that international reporting, at least as practiced by outlets like BuzzFeed and CNN, naively crashes against again and again and again.

From this standpoint, the most egregious quality of all the reporting is the way in which it only halfheartedly tries to convey the sense that the reporters and publications are invested in what’s going on. That they are bringing up these issues because the issues are important, because they need to be heard, and because something has to be done about them — that, by writing about them, the journalists are in fact doing something consequential and important about the whole damn thing. And of course, that is a painfully insincere claim most of the time, especially when it comes to an airplane that, after a week of breathless, wall-t0-wall coverage, remains no less lost to us -- and a country that is no better understood.

As the MH370 incident played out, as I was reading and listening and processing it all, Matthew Power passed away on assignment in Uganda. Power was a journalist of the highest caliber -- a curious and sensitive soul who was intensely focused on the truth of other people, societies, and cultures. His 2006 Harper’s Magazine article, “The Magic Mountain,” which tells the story of a Filipino garbage dump, is one of the few articles written by an American that truly captures a particular Southeast Asian quality few non-Southeast Asians will ever know about. He is -- was -- proof that truth can be found between us, and that world reporting can truly bring something of value to those who consume the news.

The reporting on MH370, on the other hand, was a story told by Americans about my home. To my ears, the story sounded like genre fiction, so much so that the Malaysia being described was barely recognizable. This entire media spectacle begs the question: What really was the point?

By Nicholas Quah

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Air Travel Malaysia Malaysia Airlines Media Criticism Mh370