In light of the tragic Germanwings crash, Joe Evans looks critically at how we thirst for constant news, and how this leads to hysteria and misinformation
The tragic consequences of the Germanwings flight which this week was crashed into the Alps prompted a mass media outpouring. Within hours of the disaster news desks erupted, filling television screens with breaking information. While the popularity of minute-by-minute news casting, particularly in cases such as this, is undeniable, it has deep flaws.
In this particular example, the time between the initial shock of the crash up until the deciphering of the black box was essentially dead air time. Breaking updates became less and less specific. This continued up until around 4am GMT. At this point, the New York Times released information illuminating the the co-pilot’s involvement and the story was once again blown open.
Where 24 hours of news is deeply flawed is in that in this downtime, a time for consideration of events, they still have airtime to fill. What this type of machine gun newscasting can sometimes promote is irresponsible and overtly ruthless reporting; the type the media should not be proud to perpetuate.
BBC News, for example, interviewed a number of aviation experts following the collision. Each, like Carsten Spohr and Thomas Winklemann (CEOs of Lufthansa and Germanwings, respectively) were grilled on every aspect of the Airbus’s safety. These interviews were unable to provide any clarity, other than explaining the excellent safety record of the planes. There only effect was that they served to promote hysteria regarding the planes’ suitability to fly. In filling the airtime before any more illuminating material became available, the media in fact served to cloud the events further.
As the amount of breaking material slowed further, a former pilot was interviewed at around 5pm. This individual offered even less clarity, instead expressing the incredibly unsympathetic view that no pilot should ever wish to commit suicide like this. Again, rather than offering any information, this interview served to express a knee-jerk demonisation of mental illness rather than providing any explanation as to the chaos.
This is not the first time that the need to fill 24 hours on air has led to insensitive journalism by the BBC. In late February, following the identification of ‘Jihadi John’, a representative of CAGE was asked by Kay Burley how he felt about the beheadings. This incredibly unfair question provoked Cerie Bullivant to respond that, “We should not have to justify our humanity by saying that I am shocked by something as brutal as this.”
Kay Burley, in an attempt to fulfil the criteria of non-stop, up-to-the-minute news, offered up an impossible and ignorant question. The parallel between this and the none stop need for information regarding the Germanwings tragedy, when there simply was none to be found, highlights the weakness in rapid fire news.
While it is vital that we are informed, and that news is rapid, it also has to ensure that it fulfils a responsible role. Arbitrary allusions to the possibility of pilots across Europe being part of an extremist sleeper cell are simply instant regurgitation of hearsay. The media, largely, did not credit such extreme reactions. However, hurling around misinformation, some of which invariably sticks in the public consciousness, only serves to perpetuate fear and confusion.
Consideration and responsibility need to override ruthlessness and knee-jerk reactions. Tracking down the family and friends of the dead offers little in terms of lucidity. Interviewing Bodo Klimpel, mayor of Haltern—home to 16 passengers on the flight—hours after the events contributes very little. This is especially true when he is asked questions, as he was, about his response to the accident itself rather than being asked to give a tribute to the dead. Likewise ‘Everything we know about Andreas Lubitz’ news articles provide forensic analysis of the most innocuous aspects of the individual’s life. For the family of the co-pilot, his history is paraded in the public eye, with its inspection the only aim.
The Daily Mail have run an article following an interview with an unnamed ex-girlfriend of Lubitz. He is said to have woken from nightmares shouting “We’re going down!” insinuated in the article to be a clear allusion to his actions this week. With the difficulties interpreting the effects of mental illness in this case, these kinds of accusations do nothing to debug attitudes to depression. Instead the newspaper have provided a controversial aspect to the story, delving into the co-pilot’s history in order to fill column inches. This can easily be attributed to the fact that publications like The Daily Mail are not forerunners in responsible journalism. But the difference between this and the BBC’s questioning of Klimpel, is not too far a leap.
These stories, again do nothing to illuminate events. Information released by police is of relevance, and is made sure to be relevant by careful consideration. In juxtaposition with this, Bild were publishing information about ‘Lubitz[‘s]… serious relationship crisis with his girlfriend before the disaster and the resulting heartbreak… thought to have led to this,’ just hours after the disaster. Similarly The Daily Mail‘s investigation and the BBC’s desperate attempts to find some reason for the disaster fuel confusion.
This brand of investigative—but speculative—journalism is not how our media should approach disaster. It is devoid of respectability, balance and validation. Public hysteria is not subdued or explained by this type of information being thrown around, rather it is mirrored. This is hysterical journalism. A desperate attempt to throw information into a void of uncertainty in order to fill time and space.
In a recent interview, editor of Private Eye Ian Hislop was asked whether he considered his magazine to be relevant, publishing every two weeks, in the world of 24 hour news. His response was that in a world of instantly regurgitated information, the considered angle of his magazine was a breath of fresh air. This is true, but is also indicative of how news needs to be run.
Speed is increasingly becoming of the essence. News broadcasts every two weeks would, obviously, be totally redundant. We want to know everything we can immediately. However, too often, 24-hour news doesn’t contribute what we are looking for.
Two hours of news is stretched over four hours of television, or alternately ruthlessness too often rules in order to provide material for the conveyor belt. This isn’t a promotion of balance or of thought, it is a promotion of irresponsibility and, at its worst, hysteria.
That is not what our media should be providing. So often in circumstances of tragedy we turn to the media for clarity. Considered, informative and validated information is what the media should look to provide, and too often this is incompatible with the culture of 24-hour news.