Aircraft crashes dominate global news reporting as journalists seek to provide the public with information. Yet, not all incidents receive equal coverage. On the 10th of March 2019, Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi crashed, resulting in the deaths of all 157 souls onboard (Boeing, 2019). Media was quick to respond to the news, with Australian outlets headlining the story while developments were still being revealed. Two days after the crash, airlines around the world made headlines as they began to ground the Boeing 737-8 Max, the aircraft at fault for the crash, as the Ethiopian incident was the second in six months resulting in casualties. The reporting quickly changed from informing the public on the crash site developments to the impact of grounding the aircraft type, proving there are priorities in media reporting. Ethiopian Airlines are not alone in receiving unbalanced attention from western media. This essay will explore the ethics of priorities in media reporting while cross-examining the media coverage of recent air crash investigations by Australian media and abroad.
The ethical dilemma that occurs in this case is media bias. Known to be when the media exhibits unjustifiable favouritism as they cover the news, bias must be kept in check to ensure viewers are presented with an accurate, balanced report, which provides a fair view of the world around them (Levasseur, 2007). Western media, being the mass media of free pressed western societies, offered limited coverage of ET302 before directing front pages and headlines to the story of the grounding of the Boeing 737-8 Max (Fiske, 2011). The incident is the Boeing 737-8 Max’s second fatal air crash in the past six months, resulting in a call to ground the aircraft until the mechanical fault is resolved (Bussewitz, 2019). The news of a global grounding of over 340 aircraft has diverted western media attention away from the unfolding developments of what caused the Ethiopian crash to the impact on travel arrangements (“The countries and carriers that have grounded the Boeing 737 Max,” 2019). The ethical dilemma of the reporting on death, spanning across the journalistic models of headlines, images, press releases and video content, is the prioritisation of an inconvenience of changes to travel over the deaths of close to 500 people in the past six months. With an estimated print/broadcast media reach of 18 million and online outlets reaching 61% of Australians daily, our media have a clear responsibility in informing the public and acting as an intermediary between the people and the authorities responsible for their safety in airline travel (Deloitte, 2018). Undeniably, the Australian media along with the rest of western media have been able to present this content to millions of individuals based on circulation numbers of this calibre.
To analyse the ethical dilemma of media bias, it is valid to compare ET302 with Malaysian Airlines MH17 crash in 2014. MH17 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over Ukraine by a military missile, killing all 298 onboard (Government of Netherlands, 2015). Like ET302, media was quick to respond to the news; however, as there were Australians onboard, Australian media’s attention focused the tragedy that is the deaths of those onboard, opposed to shifting to the blame, as the media has done with ET302. In the case of MH17 foul play was involved and speculation of terrorism drove media coverage as attacks by Muslim perpetrators receive, on average, 357% more coverage than other attacks (Kearns, Betus, & Lemieux, 2018). As the attack was disproven as a Muslim terror incident, the media returned to providing the public with balanced news coverage of the unfolding events following the crash. Furthermore, Australian media continued to headline developments months after the accident. Opposingly, in the case of ET302, only five days past the crash, Australian along with other western headlines reported on how the groundings would affect individuals travel plans opposed to the development that global media have reported, such as the results from the Blackbox Flight Recorder.
Western media, in particular the Australian press, have three alternative courses of action to take. First and foremost, to prioritise the publication of the most newsworthy information, not to publish anything until facts are confirmed and finally to ensure equal coverage is given to news stories of the same calibre. These alternatives are guided by several ethical philosophies including pragmatism, the “tradition of the social contract” and kantianism.
Reporting on the truth and the factual information available on a story are fundamental principles of journalism. It is the role of a journalist to express ideas, opinions and information in an honest and accurate form that discloses of all essential facts (MEAA, 2018). The media hold a privileged role to influence societies beliefs about a topic; therefore, it is the journalist’s responsibility to report the most newsworthy information first. As an alternative to the reports of ET302, the facts would be clearly outlined: the aircraft crashed in Addis Ababa at 8:44 am local time due to a currently unidentified mechanical fault, rather than reporting theories which suggest the incident was due to pilot error or fatigue (McMah, 2019). While early reports were written in this newsworthy style as developments in the story slowed, less newsworthy angles such as how insurance will change as a result of the crash arose. While the insurance change is possibly a more newsworthy story depending on the media’s audience, the news that Boeing has asked the Federal Aviation Authority to ban the use of 737-8 Max suggests that there is a possibility for further loss of life.
Therefore, by writing the facts first, this could not be construed as a socially, politically or financially motivated report by the media outlet publishing the content. There is no “worst-case” scenario to this alternative as simply reporting on facts will not influence the public in any way, nor will it harm anybody personally, professionally, or legally. This alternative would also be the most ethical to the families who lost loved ones aboard the flight, as the information they received would have given them an opportunity to grieve, with the accurate understanding of how the plane went down. However, this alternative could be invalidated if a media organisation did not have the finances to fact check themselves and took paid promotions by travel and insurance companies to finance stories. From an ethical standpoint, it is better to deliver relevant but less newsworthy stories, than fake news or plagiarised news. The alternative of providing newsworthy stories was created this the ethical theory of pragmatism, which is widely recognised as journalism’s most important philosophical approach due to its association with a “search for facts” (Legg, 2008). This ethical philosophy validates an objective, neutral approach, while maintaining no justification for journalists to embellish or interpret the news.
The second alternative action to take when reporting on air crashes is to not report at all. It is suggested to wait for the evidence to be provided, then publish an in-depth piece that covers all aspects of the incident. However, with this, the legitimacy of the news organisation or the journalist’s career could be called into question, thus causing significant harm to the reporter personally, professionally and financially. This suggestion was created through the consolidation of the “tradition of the social contract” ethical philosophy. The eighteenth-century theory focuses on the relationship between journalists and readers – and the necessity to provide truth, facts, and context, if the journalist wants to gain trust in from their readers (Friend, 1995). As indicated by the Black Box data recorder onboard Ethiopian Flight 302, there has been no truth nor evidence to suggest the demise of the aircraft was due to pilot error or fatigue (Lazo, Schemm, & Aratani, 2019). This alternative aims to wait for all information to be released before poorly reporting unproven theories.
The last alternative to take when reporting on global aviation disasters is to ensure equal coverage is given to news stories of the same calibre. Due to Australia’s relations with the western world, when a crisis occurs in one of our allied nations, our media tends to report heavily on the situation. However, as Australia is a multicultural country with over 46% of the population being born/ having one parent born overseas, our media needs to report on incidents all over the world with the same intent, to ensure the needs of our nation are met (ABS, 2012). In June of 2009 Air France flight 447 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, crashed in the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 occupants, within the same month Yemenia Flight 626 flying from Sana’a, Yemen to Moroni, Comoros, dived into the Indian Ocean killing all 153 people aboard (“Air disasters timeline,” 2019). While, these tragedies occurred less than a month apart, with similar magnitudes of destruction, the Air France flight received considerably more media attention. Our media continues to report further into western issues as can be exampled by the coverage of terror attacks in Europe versus the similarly serve attacks carried out daily in the Middle East. It is the role of a journalist to report fairly and accurately. If the most newsworthy story is available to report on to inform the public, it should not matter where the incident occurred. This alternative that news of the same global significance should be reported on equally was created with the ethical philosophy of Kantianism, which suggests that the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfil our duty (Vleeschauwer, 2018). Kant argues that we owe a duty to rationality by virtue of being rational agents; therefore, as journalists, we must apply the rule of universalizability which states “Treat others how you wish to be treated” (Kant, 1785). This ethical rule validates how it is essential that a journalist treats all news with the same seriousness regardless of international relations.
Ethical Guidelines and Proposed Changes
Each of the proposed alternatives have been evaluated by the ethical guidelines of teleology and deontology – the consequences and the actions. Teleology is the moral decision that is reached by considering the implications of the action (Johnson, 2005). Alternatives one and three both ensure that the “good” outweighs the potential harm of reporting on tragedy. While the execution of both these alternatives will vary depending on the news organisation the reporting is employed by, any news that is factual, promoting newsworthy angles and fair to all audiences is an improvement. Alternative two is unrealistic in the time-sensitive world that is mass media. While it would be ideal if journalists could wait for hard facts to be confirmed, often it is the case in our instant society that media organisation are racing one another to be the first to release the news. As a result, the time-pressured journalist should only publish the facts they do have, even if it is few, and continue to bring updates with rolling coverage to minimise any potential harm. Therefore, using the ethical framework of utilitarianism, the alternative that will have the most significant benefit for the highest number of people, and the least amount of harm, would be option one – ensuring the news is reported accurately, emphasising the most newsworthy angles (The University of Texas at Austin, 2018). Deontology, the idea that actions are based on duties or obligations to others, was also taken into consideration when reporting suggestions were created (Patching & Hirst, 2014) A sense of harm minimisation was supported by each alternative, with each option offering a different sense of protection for the various parties involved. All alternatives demonstrate fidelity between journalists and their readers, owing to the element that facts and context are essential.
After examining the three proposed alternatives, it has been determined that option one would be the most appropriate suggestion for news organisations to employ. This alternative should already be implemented in every newsroom across the globe; however, due to financial and time pressures, unfortunately in the case of ET302, newsworthiness has been forgotten. Ensuring the most newsworthy stories are given coverage would reduce media bias and appeal to all Australians interested in global topics. Due to the journalist’s role as the fourth estate, option one is also the most realistic suggestion for implementation, as when the media- reader relationship is strong, news outlets can be less reliant on sponsored posts. Potential financial and time pressures have been considered, and it has been deemed reporting on the most newsworthy element of a story, even if minimal information is available is a “good” that outweighs any potential harm.
This essay has investigated the media bias that is evident in the reporting of global news stories. It is recommended that journalists report on the most newsworthy stories to keep audiences informed, regardless of the place of occurrence. This essay has found that western media devotes less time to global topics of conversation as it does to allied news stories; therefore, it could be recommended that coverage should be equal when the story is of high relevance. The main contention is that tabloids are misconstruing information to be the first to sell news. It is recommended that all media follows the MEAA as well as ethical practices to protect all involved in a time of grief, tragedy and uncertainty for the future.
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