“The hardest thing for a news operation to do is wait”
Just a little over two weeks ago, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board. It was a fascinating story and the hunger for updates on what had happened to the plane appeared insatiable. The news media responded to this demand with 24-hour coverage of all aspects of the crash.
Brooke Gladstone, managing director of On The Media, an NPR radio show, is wary of this type of non-stop news reporting. Last year, On The Media developed a Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook, following the Navy Yard shooting in Washington DC in which Aaron Alexis fatally shot 12 people on a military base before being killed by police.
“We saw the same mistakes made every single time in the rush to fill the 24-hour news cycle,” Brooke told us. “There’s always a rumour of a second shooter. There are always unnamed officials who say things that are wrong. We just thought, wouldn’t it be useful, since it happens so horrifically often, if people just knew they should wait a few news cycles?”
In the direct aftermath of a shooting, basic facts such as the names of perpetrators and victims are “invariably wrong”, says Brooke, adding that the misinformation spreads further as news organisations quote each other: “They think it lets them off the hook for getting well-sourced information themselves. It doesn’t.”
“There’s sometimes just a desperation to the reporting. The worst thing, the hardest thing for a news operation to do is wait.”
When MH17 crashed, Brooke noticed news media were repeating some mistakes they had made during earlier instances where civilian flights had been downed, such as the shooting of an Iranian Airliner by US navy vessel USS Vincennes in 1988.
“You get an enormous amount of political doublespeak and the withholding of information,” she says. “Television news will rely on aviation experts who are not experts. There are attempts to politicise the passengers on board, combing the passenger manifesto for clues. You see blame [placed] on airlines who are trying to save money.”
Brooke says a big part of the problem is the short form in which news stories are often presented. “It’s hyper reductionism – they just reduce a story to five sentences or five words. Some stories can’t be reduced to five words,” she says. “It’s not whether the Russians are innocent or guilty. It’s the nature of their involvement in this. Was it spiritual? Was it material?”
In the latest episode of On The Media, Brooke introduces their newest breaking news handbook, the airline edition. Listen to the episode and read the full guide here.
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.