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Germanwings and MH17: Media's Instant Gratification Template for Air Disasters

Mass media is geared towards assigning blame for air disasters quickly, before a real investigation takes place. However, murky tragedies like MH17 are not adequately covered in this way

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I was as, as everyone, shocked at the crash of Germanwings flight 9525, on March 24th, then stunned as developments emerged soon after as to the cause of the tragedy, which claimed 149 lives.

Just 2 days later, on March 26th, the Daily Mirror declared –


Andreas Lubitz, the 28-year-old German co-pilot of the doomed Germanwings plane deliberately slammed the jet into the ground after locking himself in the cockpit.

A photo was included of the man cited by some sources as 27, others 28, from Montabaur in Germany, as he smiled by San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge.


ABC added on the 26th –

An airline spokeswoman said Lubitz had 630 hours of flight experience and only 100 of those hours were on this particular model of plane, an Airbus A320. By comparison, a U.S. first officer would be required to have at least 1,500 hours of experience to get hired by an airline.

Investigators have been able to listen to the audio recording from inside the cockpit and the captain can be heard leaving the cockpit and then tapping on the door to re-enter but being denied, Robin said.

Their video report added further information of Lubitz’s ‘existing illness’, and condition he had ‘concealed from his employers’ as it referenced German media which had already exposed his ‘history of mental illness’.

Next day, the BBC amplified –

He intentionally started a descent while the pilot was locked out.

He said air traffic controllers made repeated attempts to contact the aircraft, but to no avail. Passengers could be heard screaming just before the crash, he added.

The Mail added –

French investigators believe Lubitz locked himself inside the cockpit and then intentionally smashed the Germanwings plane into a mountainside.

On the 31st, a week after the tragedy, the Telegraph summed up –

Andreas Lubitz: Everything we know on Tuesday about Germanwings plane crash co-pilot

Latest news: co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, 27, who crashed Germanwings Flight 4U9525 in the French Alps was treated for suicidal tendencies

Fatherhood: Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz was expecting a baby with his teacher girlfriend before the air crash which killed him and 149 others, it has been claimed.

Lubitz, who deliberately crashed the plane into the French Alps, was in therapy for suicidal tendencies before getting his pilot’s licence, Germany’s state prosecutor has told Press Association.

A transcript from the black box voice recorder recovered from crash site reveals the pilot screaming at Andreas Lubitz to open the cockpit door.

Captain Patrick Sondheimer pleaded with Lubitz to unlock the cockpit door before taking an axe to it in a desperate attempt to stop the plane crashing.

The article goes on, at length, as just one week after the tragedy, it feels like we the viewer have concrete information about all the key details of the disaster. So much information has come out it that it feels as if every detail of the investigation has been immediately disseminated to the press.

And in 9525 what we have is what people expect, what they even now demand, from a modern aviation disaster. Announcement of tragedy. Shock, comprehending scope of tragedy, followed very soon by answers –Who Did It? Why Was it Done? 

In that, we have the paradigm the media apply to every air disaster. Bold headlines of shock, quick attribution of blame, exploration of ramifications – in the case of 9525, flight deck policyLufthansa’s monitoring of its pilotsGermany’s relation toward mental health.

The circumstances of Germanwings are far removed from Malaysia Airlines flight 17, over 8 months and 3000km away, as it went down in Donbass, Grabovo, on July 17th 2014, with the loss of all 298 lives on board on the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpor.

But the tactics of the media, unerringly identical. In the case of MH17 – immediate apportioning of blame to the pro-Donbass forces, and Russia, even Putin himself as a proxy, this from the very next day, as countless headlines peremptorily place the blame at Putin’s door – 

Then, followed by the inevitable rounding in on the pro-Donbass fighters, their ‘failings’, and that of their cause (the independence of Donbass from Ukraine) supposedly exemplified, exposed by the apparent fait accompli of their having ‘shot down the Boeing’.

But MH17 was never as simple as that. It was never an immediate ‘cut and shut’, the ‘BUK at first look’ policy applied by the press. It was a tragedy which required an investigation. An investigation which, through either cover-up or incompetence, never happened. An investigation, led by a Dutch and Australian team, who sent out a press release a couple of days ago calling not for witnesses of the crash, but witnesses of a ‘BUK missile system’ alleged as responsible.

The release referenced a phone call many have claimed as staged, made by ‘separatists’ – the pejorative term for pro-independence fighters, and added that they were looking to speak to ‘anybody who can help to solve this tragedy’.

But there’s no question that the weight of an investigation which will have taken over a year when completed, is in finding an outcome to suit a verdict delivered by the media a couple of days after the event.

The media formula of crash, shock, revelation, blame may suit them, their audience. It may even suit some air disasters, but it never fitted MH17 its adoption another in a litany of problems to have befallen the ill-fated flight, after its shattering into hundreds of thousands of pieces across fields in rural Donbass.

All air disasters are not equal, each deserves an individual investigation based on unique circumstances. The continual application of the instant gratification media formula risks jeopardising what should always be the incontrovertible goal of any investigation – justice for the relatives of victims, answers to prevent recurrence.

With MH17, the weight of world opinion was formed by media coverage in the first couple of days. Now, the investigation has to go up against a global opinion already formed by headline writers before any investigation was conducted.

We’ll see whether the will the will be to challenge the press who will defend their initial, however unsubstantiated, findings, the resultant entrenched mindsets, with facts derived from real investigation. Or whether the investigation will itself be a victim, in part of this media’s application of a standard aircrash formula – shock-blame-shame.

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