Four Reasons Syria Refugees are a Bigger Story than Malaysian Air MH 370

It is a tragedy that the 239 passengers on Malaysian Air MH 370 never made it to Beijing, and appear to have been the victims of a hijacking that went horribly wrong. But the hours and hours of US cable television speculation about the fate of the flight during the past seven days are a Daily Show parody waiting to happen. There has been some genuine breaking news in the mystery worth covering, but much of that air time was spent in fruitless speculation. One guest told CNN that ‘funny-sounding’ but ‘very deadly’ Uighurs could be at fault. Even over-the-top CNN commentator Richard Quest reacted with horror at the sheer speculation and shut the guest down.

It is a little mystifying why American broadcast networks become collectively obsessed with a story like this and insist on covering it 24/7 even in the absence of genuine news. At Lexis Nexis, “Malaysian Flight 370” returns 1800 stories during the past week. In contrast, the string “Syria and refugees” for the past 7 days returned 241 stories (not all of those are even about Syria’s refugees– some of the stories center on, e.g., the Central African Republic, presumably where the search algorithm favored ‘refugee’ over ‘Syria).

The Syrian refugee story is vastly more important than the missing airliner:

1. There are some 2.5 million Syrian refugees, so the scale of the human tragedy there, in which 140,000 have died, dwarfs that of one missing airliner.

2. There is most likely nothing anyone can do about the airliner. But the welfare of the Syrian refugees, many of them children, depends on our donating and organizing to help them. In turn that philanthropy depends on the world public knowing about their plight, i.e. depends on the news channels to get out the word. (Mosltly, they aren’t).

3. The airliner may have been the victim of terrorism. But the Syrians who fled their homeland for Lebanon and Jordan have definitely been the victims, either of state terror or of the terrorism of groups such as the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

4. The airliner cannot actually be reported on from the field, since it is likely at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. But reporters can freely go to refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to interview those made homeless and penniless by the Syrian civil war.

There is something wrong with the editors’ conception of what “news” is when a huge story like the displacement of millions of people is virtually ignored while a missing airliner gets wall to wall coverage.


Related video:

AFP: “Syria’s refugees”

15 Responses

  1. A reality check here. Syria is old news: sad news, depressing news, chewed-over news, with no potential of narrative climax or resolution anytime soon. It’s like a visiter in your home who is just one long downer and doesn’t know its time to go home. Practically speaking, until it enters a new and more interesting phase, Syria is no longer news.

    MH370 is the drama of the unknown, evoking the spookiness and primal fear of a creaking floorboard in the middle of the night. It possess the giddiness of mystery far greater than that of the ill-fated Air France that ended-up on the bottom of the South Atlantic a couple years ago.

    Not being the type to get sucked into such stuff personally, hasn’t some talking-head or the other had the nerve to point out the parallels with the LOST television series??? Wowee.

    Talk about programing suspense. There were also those two IRANIANS (!!!) on-board with stolen passports. Coming on the heels of revelations of those dastardly dastards smuggling weapons into Israel for the Palestinians, AND a new (al-jazeera) report showing that the Lockerbie bombing was really the work of….wait for it…the IRANIANS! Seriously, on al-jazeera last night the above 3 items were end-to-end in the crawl.

    I feel your pain, but lets wake up and smell the coffee.

  2. Unfortunately, Professor Cole, even though I agree with you, the raison d’etre of television is only to make profits for the corporations that own them. A TV news editor has little choice over what constitutes the “news.” They’re just hired gun so to speak. And as A.J. Leibling, a famous alumni and writer from the old days at The New Yorker, cynically observed: freedom of the press belongs to the guy who owes the press. If an editor would show some moral fortitude and actually balk to the corporate suits in the offices above the newsroom about all this sensationalism being pandered to viewers about this hijacking, he would probably be told to clear out his desk, allowed one hour to accomplish that task while security guards hovered near him and advised by them not to let the revolving door hit his backside as he exited the building. And given that the 9/11 attacks were also the result of hijackings, news channels will be pushing the fear button on their viewers for quite a long time with this story. And the more viewers watching their broadcasts, the higher will be the advertising rates these corporations can charge. Capitalism reins supreme in our country. Imagine that. ( “I’m shocked, shocked there’s gambling at Rick’s Cafe.”)
    A common trope in the MSM has been stating how war-weary Americans have become. Even the MSM eventually catches on to the obvious in our country. Americans could care less about or even identify with the tragedy of being a Syrian war refugee. It’s just so far from their everyday world and consciousness. Even in the best of times. Americans are quite myopic about the world beyond their shores – despite all this chatter about the Internet making the world a global village – and really have such a short attention span when it comes to what constitutes news. The news travels through those fiber optics at the speed of light. But it also disappears just as quickly.
    It’s just the way things are here in America and generally in what academic call the postmodern condition..
    So profits trump an informed public. That’s unless you’re an afficionado of warching PBS when it comes to getting your news.. And that cherished notion about the marketplace of ideas necessary for an informed public and electorate? Well. it has been just another marketplace for corporate profits for quite a long time.. Or a propaganda tool that would probably make Goebbels salivate if he were still alive today.. Look at how slickly the neocons sold the Big Con to the marks about invading Iraq because it has weapons of mass destruction.

  3. News agencies are focused on this because their pay masters know that this is a staging point for a series of prolonged tragedies and crises much worst than Syria. In fact this would be a natural progression of things after Syria. Depending on the outcome if this drama, the world might be going to war with Iran. Or China. Or Russia. Or America. Or all of the above.

    Hmmm …. odd to imagine US on the same side with Iran. But look at Syria, where US is sharing its playbook and toys with al-qaeda operatives.

    And yes I am speculating. Yes I’ve been reading too much from conspiracy theory blogs, and watching too much spy movies.

  4. Prior comments stated valid reasons why coverage of this missing flight has been so prominent. There’s another reason: lots of Americans have flown on airplanes. While it may be difficult for some to empathize with Syrian refugees because it is outside their experience it is easy to wonder if something like this could happen to you, whether to you as a passenger or you as a relative, friend or neighbor of a passenger.

    Just as part of the G Washington bridge scandal involves interest in what deleting candidate Christie does for the 2016 elections, part of this interest can be traced to the fact that just about everyone has been in a traffic jam at some point.

    • Personally, I think it is because when humans used to be arboreal, they only survived if they had a healthy fear of falling, so it is one of our few inherited instincts. Being on an airplane falling out of the sky is the scariest thing imaginable to tree-dwelling primates.

  5. NBC has had some coverage of Syrian refugees this past week with their medical correspondent being one covering children’s health issues, etc. I believe Good Morning America continued some coverage plus there was a note to visit their website for info on how people could help, as many were apparently asking. That said, it came a little later in the newscast after the airliner story. One night it bugged me that after a report, they immediately had a commercial for a drug to help people with bad skin problems. It seemed somewhat in poor taste, as it made it seem that the refugee story was sad and all, but Americans are suffering from psoriasis!

    The over analyzing of the airliner is beyond ridiculous. Please networks, just state the current facts and move on. I don’t need or care about you jumping on every little thing to speculate what it may or may not mean or be.

  6. There has been very little media concern historically with Syria – a nation whose population is three times that of Israel and about equal with that of Iraq.

    Comparatively few Americans are aware of the 30,000 massacred by the Hafez Assad regime at Hama in 1982, and it is likely few U.S. citizens outside the Syrian-American exile community have donated funds for refugee relief for displaced Syrians.

    Sen. John McCain has been one of the few members of U.S. Congress that has been an outspoken supporter of aid to Syrians opposing the Baathist regime in Damascus.

    The Syrian Support Group has a State Department license to solicit donations from the public for non-lethal aid to the Free Syrian Army. See:

  7. Not sure if I agree with Juan’s ranking of the relative importance of these stories. We don’t know yet what the hijackers of the Malaysian flight intend to bomb with their new jet.

  8. “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” MSM lives down to the Joseph Stalin standard.

  9. It’s normal,the press couldn’t care less what happens to what they consider…the others….Africans Arabs Asians…they only care about the Israel/Palestinian situation because Jews are involved..if it were..Palestinian/turkey…it would. Be on page 30

  10. Much as we might want news organizations to focus on what matters most, some blame goes to the audience. Cable channels measure their ratings right down to the segment, and they know which stories get the most eyeballs. Web sites of course can measures page visits. So there must be an audience for this, just like every time we wonder why the media focuses on a story.

    • It’s also a push-me-pull-you: the writers and editors and producers work hard to find ledes and hooks among the flood of Narrative-fit “reality.” Which then get the carefully enumerated play that reinforces the ghoulish, the voyeuristic, the fan-programmed among us to watch and twitter and post and so attract yet more idiotic but profitable efforts from the writers and editors and producers. Any chance of breaking out of that “WHILE x=0 : WEND : END” loop-de-loop?

  11. Public wants sensational and sizzling news, and the News Chanel’s are providing the required material, Peter Green is right. If Isreal wasn’t involved with Palestian, it would be a distant call, so how would you expect the public to know about the tragedies of Syrian Refugees?? Now the concern is what would be the fate of the MH 370! Will the Hijackers use it for a huge explosion? or some other ulterior motive? Whatever their vision! but the press has the audience biting their nails!
    May God be with the thousands of unfortunate Syrian refugees! I share their pain and misery and my heart goes out to them!

  12. Apart from all the cynicism and sad reality of American TV news (globally, Syria gets a lot more attention), I just want to say, as an American humanitarian aid worker in Lebanon working for Syrians (and Palestinians) thank you for your efforts Dr. Cole to continue to shed light on this issue.

    As the crisis enters its 4th year, we are all very concerned that international bi- and multi-lateral donors will become “fatigued” and start cutting funding for incredibly important work. We are still providing the very basics to most refugees – and the situation is getting worse as they have to sell all their assets just to survive. Almost none of them can legally work, so as their coping mechanisms begin to fail, the situation will only get worse.

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