The Malaysia Airlines story, and the need for skepticism and critical thinking skills while following it

Last night I was going to put up a post regarding the whereabouts of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. But after watching the latest news, I decided I needed to hold back. Once again, some items that have been reported as fact have turned out not to be true, and that has happened enough over the past six days that I want to carefully retread the ground already covered.

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That is an axiom very familiar to journalists, but it is important for we the people to also check it out: to examine what the media publishes with a gimlet eye. The reporting on this story provides a valuable object lesson in the need to be skeptical and apply logic and critical thinking skills to media reports. We tend to believe the “facts” based on the reputation of the media source publishing them, but in the fog of ratings wars and a fast-moving story, often reporters will just get the facts “roughly right” in order to quickly shoot out the report.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the reporters were wrong, though; it is also not beyond the realm of possibility that authorities are either not releasing information or deliberately releasing not-quite-accurate information in order to see what effect it has on any communications “chatter” that they may be monitoring.

Erroneous inferences drawn from the facts are also problematic, because they’re often phrased as fact in headlines, if not in the story itself. It’s a particular problem when writing terse headlines because headlines set the tone and message for the story. (Think of terse headlines as tweets, then think how hard you work to say exactly what you mean in 140 characters.) Over the past few days, there have been several instances of reporters for major media taking “facts” and then reporting the inferences made from them (whether made by the reporter or by the source) as facts. Two examples:

Radar indicated that the plane turned from its planned flight path. Because the flight was apparently headed west, some reports then said the plane had crossed over the Strait of Malacca. Based on what was solidly known at that time, that was not a provably true statement. It wasn’t until the satellite communications data – the “pings” – was revealed that location could be estimated.

Plane sent communication pings for 4 hours after radar contact was lost. A Wall Street Journal story was initially titled “Missing Airplane Flew On for Hours”; it was edited to “U.S. Investigators Suspect Missing Malaysia Airlines Plane Flew On for Hours”.  Today’s WSJ coverage is here and reports that the last ping was sent from over water at cruising altitude.  The existence of the pings does not mean that the plane flew for all 4 of those hours; flight time and direction could be plotted if sources know the location at each ping. The article notes that “[a]mong the possible scenarios investigators said they are now considering is whether the jet may have landed at any point during the five-hour period under scrutiny”. This piece perfectly captures the overall media confusion and the differences and reversals in reporting.

So far, though, my initial theory has been holding up: it was not an accident but deliberate action, the transponders were turned off, and the plane probably landed somewhere. I’ll expand on my theory/theories in another post.

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