The Chai Table - 2017

Will the Mystery of MH370 be Solved? An Analysis of Media Reporting and Presentation

By Dr. Sankaran Ramanathan

More than three years ago, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared from radar screens shortly after take-off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) enroute to Beijing in the wee hours of March 9, 2014. Despite an intensive international search lasting three years, the fate of this Boeing 777 jet airliner (including its 239 occupants) and its exact whereabouts are still unknown.

Following this tragedy, Malaysia, a successful, multi-racial, peace-loving and little-known country at the tip of the Asian continent, became the cynosure of the world for the wrong reasons - i.e. an airline disaster that grabbed the attention of international media. Negative perceptions of Malaysia have intensified after two more airline disasters in 2014/15, one involving another Malaysia Airlines flight (MH17) in December 2014 and the other involving the popular low-cost carrier Air Asia (QZ8501) in January 2015. The first two disasters accounted for more than half of the world-wide total fatalities in airline accidents (537 out of 986) in the year 2014.

A study I undertook analysed various nuances in reporting of negative news as exhibited by international news channels, specifically CNN and BBC, in covering the MH370 disaster. My findings show that Western media are quick to jump to conclusions as most journalists have a “parachute mentality" and need to get the news out fast to their viewers, based on the perception that “no news is good news." Contrarily, local (national) media are more restrained in their reporting, taking into consideration the needs and sensitivities of their multi-cultural audiences.

Before I return to this issue, it would be useful to provide readers with a quick recap of events pertaining to the disappearance of MH370. The timeline in the box below summarizes key events:


Sunday March 10, 2014, 0041 a.m.: MH370 took off from KLIA for Beijing, China. The Boeing 777-200ER had 12 crew members and 227 passengers from 14 nationalities on board, including two infants.

Sunday March 10, 0130 a.m.: Subang Air Traffic Control lost contact with the plane, which disappeared off the radar. The last recorded words were “All right, good night Malaysia 370."

March 17, 2014: According to subsequent radar detections (based on analysis of six “pings"), the plane had turned back, crossed the Malay Peninsula and headed southwards.

March 10 – 24, 2014: Initial Search and Rescue (SAR) efforts were concentrated in the South China Sea; they shifted to the northern and southern arcs of the Indian Ocean after nearly a week.

March 24, 2014, 10 p.m.: Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak (Najib) made a televised announcement that “MH370 has ended in the Indian Ocean."

April 2014 to June 2015: Despite an intensive search by an international flotilla of ships and airplanes, there were no confirmed sightings of wreckage.

July 29 2015: A piece of wreckage was spotted off Reunion Island; forensic analysis confirmed it to be part of the right flap.

May 10, 2016: Second confirmed plane part (left outboard flap) found in Reunion Island.

June 16, 2016: Left outboard flap found on Pemba Island (third confirmed piece)

March 9, 2017: Three years on, all that has been found jet are 18 pieces of debris (3 confirmed, 7 almost certain, 6 highly likely and 2 likely) , washed up on beaches stretching from the southern tip of South Africa to the east coast of Tanzania, 3,000 miles further north.

March 9, 2017: Australia calls off the search after having scoured 12,000 miles of seabed in the Indian Ocean. Since no technology currently exists that can locate where the plane is, this means the most expensive and complex search in aviation history is over.

Conspiracy Theories

As the mystery deepened, many conspiracy theories have sprouted and have been publicized in both traditional and online media. Here I would like to enter a personal caveat, i.e. I do not subscribe to any of these theories but am merely reporting them, based on the research I undertook. Further, all these theories are linked to some kind of conspiracy that rules out the plane's hijacking by terrorist groups.

• The pilot and/or co-pilot were responsible; the theory is that the pilot who is known to have supported a leading opposition politician took the plane down into the deepest part of the Indian Ocean as an act of protest and revenge against the Malaysian government.

• Americans were behind it; this theory holds that the plane was carrying some kind of highly-sophisticated equipment (believed to be a drone) smuggled by some foreign entities and bound for China. Not wanting the Chinese to get hold of this equipment, the Americans conspired with the pilot to land the plane in the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.

• Russians were behind it; same presumptions as above, except that the theory holds the plane was landed in a remote part of Russia.

• Chinese were behind it; again, the same presumptions, except that the plane was landed in a remote part of China and that the Chinese wanted the safe delivery of this equipment.

Those who subscribe to the first theory point out that the pilot had been practising mock flights in the Indian Ocean area on his flight simulator at home prior to the actual flight. Supporters of the second, third and fourth theories believe that the perpetrators are releasing the plane parts bit by bit. As for the bodies, they speculate that they are either in a mass grave or have been cremated.

These speculations will continue to hold sway especially in social media, now that the search has been called off. In all likelihood, the fate of MH370 and its occupants will remain the biggest airline mystery in history.


There are some positive takeaways from this episode, as follows:

• Malaysian aviation safety standards have been reviewed and strengthened. Despite the recent airport scare involving the murder of the half-brother of North Korea's leader (and perhaps because of it), KLIA has become one of the safest airports in Asia. Further, although there was a slight drop in the number of tourists in 2015, the Malaysian tourism industry has picked up.

• According to recent media reports, Australian scientists created 3-D maps of more than 10,000 sq. miles of sea floor in the Indian Ocean while looking for the wreckage. As the search dragged on and sonar swept the Indian Ocean, data also piled up. Surveyors found volcanoes, valleys and scars on the sea floor from tectonic plates pulling apart. This part of the Indian Ocean, delineated by calculations based on the plane's last satellite pings, has become one of the most thoroughly mapped regions of the ocean floor, and this will lead to advancements in scientific knowledge.

An analysis of reporting of the MH370 episode and other disasters provides further support for the view that there is a dichotomy arising from the way in which news is presented as an organizational and cultural product, based on deep-rooted cultural differences. Western media (as represented by Western news channels) concentrate on bizarre, tragic and occult news at the expense of positive news. National (local) media tend to downplay the sensational and bizarre elements and are careful in their reporting, seeking to report the event in a meaningful and societal context. I hope this article has given some insights into the need for balanced, meaningful and accurate reporting.

Note: The full version of this article appeared in Media Asia, Vol. 43 No. 1, 2016.