How much is too much missing plane news?
Today on CNN’s Reliable Sources hosted by Brian Stelter, national correspondent of the Atlantic, James Fallows, and media reporter at Poynter, Andrew Beaujon, discussed with Stelter what lessons are learned about the media and for the media from three weeks of missing plane coverage.
Alan Murray, president of the Pew Research Center, also spoke to Stelter about the demand for plane news, and how a new study by Pew Research Center shows 60 percent of people think news organizations are giving the proper amount of coverage of the missing plane, or should even be providing more coverage.
Additionally, Carreen Winters, executive vice president of MWW group, discussed the reaction of families who received a text message alerting them about the likely demise of their loved ones aboard flight 370. It is considered a case of crisis mis-management by Malaysia airlines. Winters comments on what has been done right, and what has been done wrong.
Transcript and videos from these discussions are available after the jump.
Flight 370 and the business of news
Flight 370: Managing the message
STELTER: Joining me now to discuss this is James Fallows, national correspondent for “The Atlantic,” and Andrew Beaujon, a media reporter and blogger for the Poynter Institute.
Thank you both for being here.
JAMES FALLOWS, THE ATLANTIC: Thank you.
STELTER: James, you were on in the first couple of hours of coverage on the missing plane on the Piers Morgan program. I haven’t seen you on television since. Have you been avoiding the bookers’ calls?
FALLOWS: I have indeed. I appreciate the attention especially from CNN bookers, but my position has been I don’t particularly know anything more about this story, even though I lived in Malaysia, I’ve lived in China, I’ve taken that flight and that pilot, too. So, I have the quadrifecta.
But it seems there’s an ample supply of people to discuss the story for CNN. As time went on, I thought the filling time and speculating was growing larger and larger. I felt I should back off from that.
STELTER: It’s a point you made on your block earlier this week which is how to think about speculation. There’s lots of different kinds of speculation the media engages in. And one of the points you made in your column is that we should seek out the experts, the people who really know what they’re talking about. You named Miles O’Brien, for example, who’s now back at CNN here as an aviation analyst covering this story.
FALLOWS: Right. And Les Abend, who also is one of your aviation veterans. And I think that is on the one hand, this story is by definition mysterious. I mean, everything about it, three weeks in, we don’t know much about it.
And since commercial airline travel is now statistically so safe when something does go wrong, it’s almost always something odd. So there is that mystery. And I think what I valued about some of the experts CNN has had, they’ve emphasized what’s difficult to know here. They’ve said how much we still have to find out.
But they’ve ruled out things that are simply nutty.
STELTER: Would you say that is the exception to the rule in the coverage or has there been far too much of what you would say you’ve been rolling your eyes at?
FALLOWS: I think I would sympathize as you do with the strategy CNN in particular has taken. This is something a lot of people want to know about.
In a way, it’s like war coverage. It’s a war that grips part of the public. It’s of undeniable human interest — human and intellectual and geostrategic. So I think CNN, I would encourage the anchors to bring on more of the guests who say, OK, well, we can dismiss these nutty things but here is the range of things that could be possible.
STELTER: Andrew, what do you think are some of the lessons learned in the coverage? Because one lesson I’ve taken away is that when you bring on readers or viewers’ questions, when you read them aloud from Twitter, for example, and you debunk them that can be both a useful exercise. It can also be very easily mocked.
STELTER: It can result on embarrassment. Is that a lesson you’ve taken away from this as well?
ANDREW BEAUJON, POYNTER: I think as print journalists we often get to not let our stupid questions get in front of our audience. If you’re —
BEAUJON: You know, people underestimate how hard TV is to do. And I think, you know, I’m always asking people dumb questions when I’m calling them. It’s just I’m lucky that nobody ends up reading that part.
STELTER: Do you feel there’s a real disconnect between the coverage and the criticism of the coverage that we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, especially?
BEAUJON: Yes. I mean, there’s definitely — there’s definitely a widening gulf between media critics and people who actually consume the media. You’ve seen the ratings. The weekly average ratings are as high or maybe higher than they were for the presidential election, which says to me that there is a vast audience for this stuff.
FALLOWS: I think there’s a long-term issue here that through human history spectacle has drawn attention away from matters of public affairs don’t necessarily do. Charles Dickens would write about public hangings and the crowds they drew. Bread and circuses had a certain appeal.
I think this one is, compared with a lot of other spectacles you can think of, this has a lot of redeeming features in the news, that technologically we want to know about our technological systems. We want to know about the Chinese-Malaysian relationship. We want to know about the sort of ecological factors in the South China Sea.
So, again, I think it’s defensible for CNN. I would probably do it if I were in a position of command here to concentrate it. It’s just trying to fill less of the time with nutso stuff and not leap to one conclusion today and a different one tomorrow morning.
STELTER: You wrote in a column on Friday, “The sobering point here is the very safety of modern air travel makes these episodes both intellectually and emotionally even more difficult.”
FALLOWS: Yes. It’s now I guess quoting a long-time flying writer who said that the FAA designs airplanes to a one in a billion safety standard. Not one in a billion hours but one in a billion flights.
STELTER: That’s incredible.
FALLOWS: So, most of the year there’s no fatalities on first world commercial airliners. So, in a way, that’s reassuring. Of course, we all view airlines as being safe. But it’s a little more terrifying in that you’re walking down the street you’re complaining about your seat in the airplane and suddenly for no reason, for random factors, it’s plunging into the sea.
So that makes it, again, hard to diagnose but also emotionally in a way more troubling.
STELTER: I mentioned in my intro the notion that CNN’s going all in on this story for editorial and for business reasons. And I wonder, Andrew, if you think that the audience should be more aware of the business reasons. For example, they should understand that it’s not just about ad sales. It’s all about a subscriber fee for a channel like CNN or FOX.
BEAUJON: I’m not sure that we really need to expect people to know what happens when we open up the hood. You know? Like I don’t know that it’s reasonable to ask anyone to care about retransmission fees or things like that.
But I do think it points to something kind of healthy for CNN, which is the ability to become a niche publication once in a while, and to acknowledge the fact it’s part of a greater media ecosystem, that these people can feast solely on this story or they can just dip in and out when they want to get ahead of it.
STELTER: Niche publication is an interesting term, because on the one hand you have more viewers than usual coming in for the coverage but it is focused on one main topic which is the missing plane. It’s been some coverage of Ukraine, some coverage of the landslide this week, but mostly the missing plane. So that’s what you mean by niche I think.
BEAUJON: Well, yes, absolutely. And it’s not like you’re not able to find coverage of Crimea or the landslide or the health care law —
STELTER: You mentioned earlier “BuzzFeed’s” actually had very good coverage of some of these stories.
BEAUJON: Very good.
STELTER: Absolutely. You know, this world is evolving so that there’s a wide variety of sources.
BEAUJON: Absolutely. And I think that something that has sunk a lot of — or really challenged I guess I should say a lot of traditional media outlets is the idea that you still have to be everything to everybody.
STELTER: So, you’re saying the notion of balanced amounts of coverage is outdated.
BEAUJON: Well, I’m not saying that it’s necessarily outdated, but some of my favorite times in any job have been when we’ve thrown the entire newsroom at one story. We’ve never had the resources of CNN to do that. But you know, it is kind of cool to see a giant machine like this get thrown at one subject.
STELTER: Is he on to something here, James?
FALLOWS: I think so. I recall CNN’s rise to prominence during the Gulf War. It had a unique function then of real-time news. Now, lots of other people, as Andrew was saying, can do similar things. So I think it’s, again, to CNN’s credit that it’s covering this story, that you are covering its coverage of the story.
And again, my main concern has been about the actual things that people say during many of the segments. I think it may be a sign of maturity and diversification in this media ecosystem that CNN sees this as its role.
STELTER: We’re talking a lot here about CNN. Maybe this shows the dramatic differences between the cable news channels. FOX News and MSNBC have pretty much just been even with their ratings during all of this.
BEAUJON: CNN is still the channel that people turn to for breaking news. It’s been that way, as James said, since the Gulf War.
BEAUJON: This isn’t something that I think reflects badly on FOX or MSNBC. I think it just means that different editorial choices lead to different outcomes.
STELTER: We see the differences more than we used to between them.
FALLOWS: And if you have to choose between spectacle coverage, which for better or worse is what we’ve seen on CNN these last three weeks, and inflaming politically extreme news, which is the model FOX pioneered and MSNBC has tried to model in its way, I would take spectacle coverage over the other as being good or bad for the republic. I think spectacle coverage is better for the republic.
STELTER: It’s interesting point for us to leave it on. James Fallows, Andrew Beaujon, thank you for joining me.
FALLOWS: Thank you.
BEAUJON: Thanks, Brian.
STELTER: I think Andrew made an important there. In this world where there’s a smorgasbord of news available, CNN is doing something to stand out. Now, that said I respect some people think it’s been too much. In fact, that’s something everybody in the media world has been debating. Has there been too much coverage of the missing plane? On TV, in print, online.
The answer from a scientific survey may surprise you. I’ll share it after this break. So don’t go away.
STELTER: We have seen a whole lot of somber reporting and a lot of wild speculating about the search for Flight 370. More than anything else, we’ve seen a whole lot of this —
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is so much we still don’t know.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can’t decide whether or not this is something that was intentional or some kind of accident.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The amount of information we don’t know is tremendous.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are many theories floating around out there.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There’s also a good deal of speculation.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We still don’t know what happened aboard the plane.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is still zero, no physical evidence.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We haven’t heard anything so definitive.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All we know is the airplane disappeared.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
STELTER: One of my guests here last week, John Ostrower of “The Wall Street Journal” wrote on Twitter that he’s run out of ways to say “I don’t know.”
And when it comes to decisions about how and how much to cover the missing plane, we have seen frustrations occasionally boil over. Watch what happened on “Morning Joe” on Monday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The theories are for later in the show. And I’ll tell you why. Because we have — everyone stop for a second. We shouldn’t be talking about theories. If you want to go to a network that has theories about Pakistan just blared across for hours and hours and hours, you’ve got many choices —
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I love Pakistan.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But that’s actually capitalizing on a non-story for the sake of ratings because people’s imaginations are pricked by this and that’s not responsible.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shh. Come on.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We did the plane. We will do the plane. It will be done again. We will do the facts.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK —
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: Mika Brzezinski was taking a shot at FOX News there, by the way. FOX had been playing up the possibility that the plane had been hijacked and flown to Pakistan even though there was never any credible evidence for that.
So, with that in mind, this Pew Research Center survey really surprised me. Sixty percent of people surveyed said there had just been the right amount of plane coverage produced by the press or, get this, not enough coverage — 33 percent polled said there had been too much coverage.
Joining me now is the president of the Pew Research Center, Alan Murray.
Allan, thanks for coming on.
ALAN MURRAY, PEW RESEARCH CENTER: Great to be here, Brian.
STELTER: Were you surprised as I was that so many people were satisfied with the coverage and only one third thought there have been —
MURRAY: No, I wasn’t surprised at all because I know your folks here at CNN are looking at the ratings every day, they’re giving people what they want. I mean, that’s the nature of the media world we live in. Consumers have lots of choices. So, they can choose to consume the news they want to choose.
Editors don’t get to decide anymore what people consume. People are choosing for themselves.
STELTER: I hope editors still have some role. But you’re saying they have less role.
MURRAY: They have less of a role in this world than they did three decades ago.
STELTER: This poll, by the way, was March 20th or 23rd. So it may well have changed in the week since.
MURRAY: I have to say watching the news I said, well, wait a minute, you’ve got Putin going into Crimea, you have the whole Ukraine story, this is a big, big deal, shouldn’t we be spending more time on that.
But that’s not what the public said in our survey. They were more interested in the plane story.
STELTER: It’s one thing you wrote on twitter this week, it’s a challenge for news organizations, do you give the public what they want, the jetliner, or what’s important, the Crimea. To which I would say isn’t the jetliner important also?
MURRAY: Well, sure, it’s important. But which is more important?
STELTER: That will be the role of an editor.
MURRAY: That’s the issue. In the old days you got to make that decision and you put the more important story at the top of the page. But that’s not how people consume news today. They’re consuming it over Facebook. They’re consuming it in different ways.
STELTER: I wish we could go and interview the 12 percent in respondents in your poll who said there has been too little coverage because I have not heard that from anyone except in this survey.
MURRAY: Maybe they’d like people to find out what happened. That could be what they’re signaling when they say —
STELTER: Right. That’s what they’re looking for.
Were there any interesting differences in the data in that survey? For example, I noticed the Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say there’s been too much coverage of the plane.
MURRAY: Yes. I think this is — this is not a political story. This is a human interest story. People have flown on planes.
The notion that a plane can disappear without any trace and the people on it be gone without any traces is a fascinating human interest story to people. It’s a mystery that they want solved. And so they watch.
STELTER: Right, right. Well, your points about editors are really interesting to me, and they came up in the state of the news media report that Pew released this week. This is the report that I look forward to every year as a news nerd.
MURRAY: Glad to serve you.
STELTER: That’s right. It gives us so many data points about where the news industry is. And last year the report had a very somber tone. It was a rather sad read.
This year, much more optimistic. In fact, in the very first paragraph, you all say there’s a new sense of optimism or perhaps hope for the future of American journalism. What are those reasons for hope?
MURRAY: Well, a couple of things. One is that the digital natives, “The Huffington Post”, the “Gawker”, “BuzzFeed”, “Mashable”, are actually staffing up. They’re hiring reporters, which I think is fundamentally here. That you have a professional group of people who are paid to go out and report the news. There are more of those.
We did for the first time ever, a count of how many people do these native digital organizations employ, found 5,000 people. That’s not enough to make up for the 16,000 that were laid off in newspaper newsrooms over the course of the last decade, but it’s a pretty big number. You’re starting to see a real difference in terms of reporters on the ground trying to find out what’s going on.
STELTER: You talk about that 5,000 number, of new employees at these online news organizations. I found there were in your report two different types of these. There’s big ones like the ones you name, like “BuzzFeed” and “Huffington Post”, and then aren’t there 400 smaller online newspapers —
MURRAY: Lots — lots of little ones. That’s one of the most fascinating things going on in journalism right now, is these little — you know, like homicide watch is a bigger example. But you have little organizations, two, three, four people trying to cover some narrow area.
STELTER: They’re the names we don’t know unless we happen to live in the communities they serve. But these are, what, people that are just covering small niche topics?
MURRAY: Sometimes niche topics, sometimes small communities. Some of them — an awful lot of them are devoted to investigative reporting. But obviously, there’s a limited amount of investigative reporting you can do if you only have two or three or four people.
But yes, I think there are a lot of people who are trying to figure this out. And that’s a beginning. That’s where innovation comes from.
STELTER: Who — where are these coming from? Who’s paying for these? Because one of the points in the report is there’s new funding coming in for journalism.
MURRAY: That’s right. You see for the first time what we call the smart money. Obviously, Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the “Washington Post,” Pierre Omidyar financing First Look Media. People who have made smart decisions, investment decisions in the past are now putting money into media.
They may be smart investors generally but wrong about media. We don’t know yet. But they’re putting money in. And that’s one of the reasons to be optimistic.
STELTER: And if there are lots of these small online news organizations, the ones you’re describing that have two or three or four employees, they’re not going to be covering the missing plane or Crimea. They’re going to be honing in on stories that otherwise wouldn’t get covered at all.
MURRAY: Well, I think that’s right. I think they’re covering some important areas. On the other hand, it is possible to look out there and see areas that aren’t being covered.
I mean, I had a member of Congress tell me that he thinks one of the biggest problems in Washington is that two decades ago or three decades ago every member of Congress had at least one reporter from the hometown newspaper looking over their shoulder and talking to their constituents about what they were doing. Most of that is gone.
You walk into any statehouse newsroom in this country and look at all the empty desks, and you can see visually that there’s been a huge cutback in the number of people who are covering statehouses. So there are areas of coverage where we’re clearly missing the kind of important coverage that we’ve had in the past. But that may come in time.
STELTER: And I’m happy to have any reasons for optimism at all after several years of a more negative view of the state of the news media.
MURRAY: Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t say that this report that we just put out overall is terribly optimistic. But the way I put it is there are some green shoots in there. There are some things popping through the permafrost that are at least better than we’ve seen in the last decade.
STELTER: Alan Murray, thanks so much for being here.
MURRAY: Great to be with you.
STELTER: The Pew Report, by the way, is available online at stateofthemedia.org.
Time for a quick break here. We want to keep you up to date on the latest information on Flight 370.
So, stay tuned for more right after this.
WHITFIELD: Hello, everyone. I’m Fredricka Whitfield, live at the CNN world headquarters in Atlanta.
“RELIABLE SOURCES” will continue in a moment.
But, first, the latest on the search for Flight 370. There has been a new discovery in the search zone that officials call the most promising lead so far. Australian surveillance planes spotted four orange objects about six feet long in the southern Indian Ocean. A ship will try to locate and recover them. Officials confirm several objects picked up by ships yesterday turned out to be fishing equipment and other trash.
The search operation is about to get some high-tech help as well. An Australian ship carrying a U.S. pinger locator and undersea search equipment is expected to leave for the search zone tomorrow and arrive on Thursday.
Meantime, a passionate news conference this morning by Chinese relatives of those on that flight. They demanded answers from Malaysian officials. They say they want the truth and also an apology for announcing that no one on the flight survived. Searchers in a Chinese plane spotted a suspicious object on Saturday. Well, it turned out to be a dead jellyfish.
I want to go now to our Will Ripley in Perth, Australia. That’s where the search is being coordinated.
So, Will, why do search teams believe that the four new objects spotted are the most promising leads, especially since so far they’ve noticed a lot of objects but they’ve turned out to be trash?
RIPLEY: Yes, you know, I mean, promising from the air. But when you actually get down to the ocean and you recover the items, it might turn out to be a different story. That seems to be the case that we are now learning.
Clearly, there are a lot of objects floating in the Indian Ocean. A lot of sea trash floating around. And so, what the planes are trying to do is sort out, OK, what is obviously sea trash and what could possibly be connected to Flight 370? And the Australian crew who spotted these four objects six feet across, orange, they feel that these could be significant enough that they’re worth a look.
But the real analysis is going to come when one of the eight ships that is in the area right now gets to this location, retrieve these items, and take a look.
And as you’ve mentioned, so far when the items have been retrieved, it has turned out to not be connected to the missing plane.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUSSELL ADAMS, RAAF FLIGHT LIEUTENANT: We did encounter an area within approximately five nautical miles which included at least four orange-colored objects greater than approximately two meters in size each. I must stress that we can’t confirm the origin of these objects.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RIPLEY: One thing that’s remarkable, Fred, is just how optimistic these flight crews remain, going out day after day, searching, and even if they come up empty, they view that as a good thing because they can mark off one area and move on to the next.
They really feel strongly that it’s very important to keep searching, searching for something tangible to help bring closure to the families of these 239 people, closure they clearly don’t have right now.
WHITFIELD: And then, Will, help us understand, it’s one thing for planes or search teams to spot — think they locate some suspicious items such as these four latest items. It’s another thing to actually try to retrieve them. Things move. And that seems to be the big problem, is it not? Especially in the case of now trying to look for, again, those four items and retrieve them?
RIPLEY: Yes. It seems so easy, doesn’t it, from our perspective to say, OK, a plane is there, they drop a buoy, let’s get a ship over there and pick it up. But when you’re out on the Indian Ocean, it’s much more complicated because of the currents.
You know, the weather is so highly unpredictable. There are days when we thought the weather was going to be terrible, the weather was wonderful. Yesterday is a perfect example.
And then there are days when we predicted good weather and the weather turned out to be awful, they actually had to call off the search. So you have currents that are moving these items.
And, yes, you’re flying over a relatively small object in the middle of this vast ocean, and even if you get the coordinates at that point, by the time a ship gets there, possibly hours or even days later, it could be in a completely different location.
WHITFIELD: Very frustrating search. Things move. All right, thank you so much, Will Ripley.
We’ll have much more a bit later on in the day. More of RELIABLE SOURCES with Brian Stelter, next.
STELTER: So how did you first hear about Malaysia Air Flight 370? I remember it very vividly when I did because the first thing that I read about it was on Facebook. A friend of mine shared a link to the airline’s Facebook page, which had just put up a foreboding message. The message said that it had lost all contact with one of its planes.
And ever since then the criticism of Malaysia Airlines has been piling up, from people who think it’s not doing enough to communicate or from people who think it’s doing it in all the wrong ways.
One example this week were the text messages that were sent from the airline to families of some of the passengers saying the flight had ended in the Indian Ocean.
There are plans for emergencies like this one. There are entire public relations practices dedicated to it. So let’s find out what one of those experts would have done differently.
Carreen Winters is executive vice president at the PR firm MWW Group. Crisis communications and reputation management are her specialties. She joins me now from New York.
Carreen, thanks for joining me.
CARREEN WINTERS, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, MWW GROUP: Hi, Brian. Thanks for having me today.
STELTER: My impression is that any time something like this happens, a company is going to take a very bad hit. And the question is whether it’s going to be a short-term or a very, very long-term hit to its reputation.
WINTERS: That’s right. Any time you put an airplane someplace it doesn’t belong, you’re going to take a hit to your reputation. And when you don’t return an aircraft to where it was supposed to go, and you can’t be quite sure where it is, I think the implications are very significant.
In these situations I think the big question that is emerging, is it more important to be right or more important to be fast? And the answer is you sort of need to be both. Back in the day when most people developed their crisis communications plans we were in a very different world.
You had an overnight news cycle, and so you had to provide information for the next day’s stories and then you had a chance to take a breath, gather your information, make some decisions, and communicate again.
Today you have to communicate constantly. And you’re competing with people on social media where everyone has a platform, perpetuating their own stories, their own theories. And we’ve certainly seen a lot of that here in this case.
STELTER: It sounds like the same tension journalists face about whether to be right or whether to be fast. The answer is you sort of have to be both.
WINTERS: You have to find the balance. But I think it is a very similar tension.
STELTER: Take me through the first steps that a company needs to take when communicating to the media when an incident like this occurs.
WINTERS: The first thing is — the rule of thumb is you have to start by communicating what you know. If you wait until you know everything you want to share, you’re going to take too long.
Back when I first started in this business a long time ago, they used to say you had to get a statement out in the first hour. I would suggest that the first hour is too long. That in an hour social media conversation has taken off wildly and now you’re running to catch up.
In this particular situation, Malaysia Air followed the checklist. They got a dark Web site up for factual information quickly. They used what they knew, that they had lost contact with the aircraft. They didn’t worry about having more information than that.
They pulled down all of their promotional information, their commercials, their promotions of new routes out of respect and deference. And they rolled out their CEO. Those are all things that are right.
STELTER: Three weeks into this, how has this crisis been managed from your perspective?
WINTERS: I think there are definitely some lessons learned on this one, Brian. This is a case where I think the airline followed their checklist. And obviously, I’m on the outside looking in. So I can’t say for sure what happened and why decisions were made when they were made.
But I’ve seen clients in many industries get into this situation where because they’re following the checklist, they think that they’re going to get it all right. The reality is it’s not just about checking the box. It’s not just what you do. It’s how you do it.
Perhaps the best example of that would be the text message that went to the families letting them know that their loved ones were presumed dead.
I can imagine how something like that would happen. The checklist says they need to hear it from us, not from the media. People in the media are going to go forward with the information that they have. Someone in that room said, well, let’s send a text message. This way we’re sure they hear it from us. And in the overtired, overcaffeinated haze that comes several weeks into a crisis it seemed like a good idea.
But nobody really applied what I call the cringe test. Someone has to be the person who steps back and says does it make me cringe when I hear about this? Because if it does, even if it satisfies the checklist, it’s not the right thing to do.
STELTER: The airline then had to come out with a statement and try to explain the use of text messaging by saying we tried to communicate in every forum we could, in person and over a phone and over text messaging. But if you’re having to explain your communications strategy you’ve failed.
Carreen Winters, thank you so much for being here.
WINTERS: Thank you.