Paying Attention: The mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 has gripped the world’s media–particularly the U.S. media. A giant airplane,a Boeing 777, with 239 people aboard, disappeared on 7 March 2014 about an a hour and fifteen minutes into a flight from Kuala Lampur to Beijing. Those concrete facts are about the only facts on which the media and those investigating the disappearance agree–and the key word is disappearance, not crash, because at this stage there is no sign of a crash (although that could change at any moment) . The rest of the information coming out of Malaysia has been imprecise, conflicting, inaccurate, and deceptive. It’s bad news for those trying to solve the mystery but it’s good news, maybe even great news, for those reporting it, particularly the full-time cable news channels, radio news channels, and internet news sites.
Research over the last decade has proven that channels like CNN really come alive on bad news. War, murder, economic crises, 911, famous people dying, catastrophe and–yes–missing jets really bring in the viewers. Bad news is good news for network program directors.
So the mystery of flight MH370 has been a particularly fertile programming gift for all the news channels.
There are several reasons why this is so.
First, it’s having a long run. We’re nine days into the story and it’s still gaining power, becoming more mysterious, more convoluted, more complex, more deceptive and inaccurate, with each passing minute and day.
Second, Malaysia is not up to the task of solving this problem. They have not faced this type of situation before, don’t have the infrastructure and the separation of administrative functions from political aims and they are incompetent at everything from holding press conferences to gathering evidence and interpreting it. Intentionally or unintentionally, they’re doing everything they can not to solve the problem and, instead, to raise the drama and send theories scurrying off in all directions. No news programmer ever had a better bad source of inaccurate information to work with.
Third, the story itself is mind-boggling. In an age in which people worry about the NSA tagging their locations through a cell phone, one of the largest airplanes on the face of the earth has vanished into thin air, leaving only a few traces on a radar track and some digital information pings bouncing off a satellite as trace material. How, in this age where everything and everyone is tracked incessantly can this happen? This juxtaposition of vanishing into thin air in the an era –particularly in the U.S–where people are reeling from the revelations of mass spying on the populace by the NSA is just incredible.
The massive flow of bad information combined with intense and increasing interest in the disappearance of flight MH370 sets up the best possible scenario for news directors: an almost endless flow of programming options that can fill up hour after hour after hour of airtime. This is, in the news game, very good news.
It’s always a good news day when there is a lot of bad news.
Filling up the airtime for something like the Malaysia air mystery is actually pretty easy. As a producer, you could do it yourself with a cell phone, a good Rolodex and a computer. Here’s how:
You have a news show and one (or two anchors). They can be very informed or moderately informed. Makes no difference. The producers will call the shots and feed the questions from the control room.
To fill the show, your content options are rich and plentiful.
First, the anchor gives a summary of the situation to date.
You’ll need maps of the area, and some animation. Also, a diagram of the 777. Stock photos/footage will do just fine.
Another good prop would be a scale model of the 777, so you can move it around in the air and show how it might make a turn or gain/lose altitude. Props are good.
Next, you’ll need some experts:
A pilot, who can talk about the plane and it’s systems.
A technologist, who can explain how radar and ACARS and transponders and Satellites work.
Someone from the NTSB (retired…the ones currently on the job will be busy) who can say how the NTSB would handle the situation. This will provide a contrast to discuss about the Malaysian’s handling the investigation.
A legal expert to talk about the legal implications of what’s going on.
A geopolitical commentator to discuss what might be gained by countries in the region hijacking the plane.
An expert on hostage negotiations, in case that scenario arises.
Someone from the U.S. Navy who can discuss how the Navy searches for airplanes that go down in the ocean; find an equivalent from the Air Force as well.
One of the investigators from the Air France Flight 447, which disappeared crossing the equator on a flight from RIO to Paris on 1 June 2009. That was another famous missing flight and he can provide authentic background.
A simulator expert, who can program various flight paths and situations into a Boeing 777 Simulator.
Finally, free-lancers or contract correspondents (both on-air and video shooters) who can “report live from the scene”, i.e. Malaysia for local background.
Then: repeat, because the news is delivered on a “wheel”, with segments repeating every 30 or 60 minutes. Also, don’t forget to simulcast on radio so you leverage the content you’ve developed across multiple “platforms”.
That’s a short list, but you get the idea. The more experts, the better, and all theories are on the table in the Malaysian Airlines mystery because of one simple fact: nothing has been taken off the table by the data available. The wilder the theories about the disappearance of the plane (pirated and stolen for resale, much like the Somali pirates still do to ocean freighters; hijacked to be repainted and then used as a weapon of war; flown to Pakistan, Kazakhstan, etc; held for ransom; alien abduction) the more air time to be chewed up, the broader the range of experts to be called in.
From a news channel or news director’s point of view, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is a target rich environment and the longer the mystery continues without finite and certain resolution,solid and indisputable facts, elimination of certain theories/options, the more people will tune in to see what’s happening. And when people tune in, ratings rise and the business is good.
And that, in a nutshell, is why Bad News is Good News for the News Business.
There’s a lot more to say about this topic, but…gotta run. A network is calling to ask about my take on media coverage of MH370.