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i Editor's Letter: Reporting on mystery



Piffle thrives when you combine media deadlines with an absence of facts. Perhaps the most clichéd  journalese is when the chap at  No 28 turns out to be a serial killer or jihadi, and news reports carry that dreaded quote from a neighbour: “They keep themselves to themselves.” Translation: I don’t know them, or anything of interest.

The second most gaseous media expression? “Mystery deepens.” Translation: we know less than we thought we did.

The tale of the vanishing airliner Flight MH370 becomes creepier by the day. We are conditioned to living under surveillance – each footstep beyond the front door tracked by cameras, satellite and signals beamed  from the phone in your pocket – so the disappearance of a 250-ton plane and its passengers defies sense.

How should we in the media cover a major story where facts are in such short supply? In this case the lack of answers is no fault of journalists, who still have a role in spelling out the “known unknowns”. The danger for editors and reporters lies in over-interpreting the limited information.  That’s why, in yesterday’s i, we marginalised the claim by Chinese officials that they had spotted debris. We risked being outpaced if the “sighting” was confirmed overnight, but that’s preferable to taking a punt on the latest claim from desperate search authorities. Sure enough, the  lead was dismissed in the morning.

Yesterday brought another extraordinary claim: that the plane’s engines continued to fire for four hours after it dropped off the radar, drawing US investigators to suspect that it may have continued to fly many hundreds of miles beyond its last known location. Frustration is hampering the search. When Air France Flight 447 disappeared crossing the Atlantic in June 2009, it took salvage crews two years to find the jet. The account of that mission by the New York Times Magazine can be found at tinyurl.com/onur299. Perhaps, at this stage, the only valid comparison with earlier aviation disasters is the horror felt by the families and friends of the missing.


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