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CNN's Reporting on MH17

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CNN is an American news network that originally rose to fame as the first channel that broadcast news 24 hours a day 7 days a week, and it has been doing so for many decades on cable television. More recently, CNN has become noteworthy for a different reason - specifically, the sensationalism that it applies to the stories that it reports upon. Admittedly such sensationalism is not unique to CNN or even to TV journalism, but as a prominent news outlet in America that can commonly be found turned on in locations such as airports or bars it is the face of many negative stereotypes associated with journalism. This approach generally relies on promoting stories that have a lesser extent on world events or fewer societal implications over those that are truly likely to alter the globe. While this style of news is nothing new, it has been increasingly evident during the past several months in the way that CNN promoted two major news stories. Specifically, the coverage of the disappearance of malaysia airlines flight 370, and the more recent downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17. These two news stories seem to have served as a microcosm for the current state of reporting at CNN and indeed at many news outlets in the world, especially major American networks, and it is thus an area worth discussion.

When MH370 disappeared earlier this year, it was a major news story on all networks through out the world. The plane dropped off the radar on an otherwise routine flight, with few clues as to where it had gone. In the immediate aftermath of the vanishing plane's exit, it became front page news in all countries. Theories developed about what may have happened to the plane - sudden depressurization, a fire that destroyed the communications systems, terrorism, a hijacking, and all manner of similar ideas. As time passed, it became increasingly clear that no one actually knew anything about where the plane had gone, and on many news networks such as BBC or Al Jazeera, the story of MH370 largely sunk to the background, only rising into the major headlines when a press release from the Malaysian government or elsewhere was released that had the potential to shed new light on the ongoing investigation. On CNN, however, the story of MH370 simply would not die. The disappearing plane mystery was evidently so appealing to the public that it resulted in a major boost to CNN's ratings. As ratings and ad revenue from viewers is what determines much of the worth of a TV network, CNN reflexively played into this major public interest in MH370 by making news out of nothing. The network began to have experts come on to speculate about nonsensical theories to fill the airtime, and reporters were sent to interview families or Malaysian government officials. Even when there was no new news at all, CNN would fill time with segments on “what we know”.

This bizarre obsession with MH370 on CNN became increasingly obvious as every other network resigned itself to avoid reporting on the story further until there was something to report, with the assumption that the plane had gone down somewhere off the coast of Australia. CNN soldiered on, fighting the good fight to keep speculating about the fate of the plane and its passengers even though this reporting added nothing. CNN began to be lampooned by Late night TV comedians such as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert for its MH370 madness, yet it still too many more weeks before MH370 ceased to get any airtime, in essence taking many months more to die than on other networks. The flight's mystery is no doubt what brought in interest from across the globe, but CNN's obsession with ratings and revenue is what kept it on the air. Despite its huge amount of airtime, the story itself was not as major as many of the other actions occuring in the world - a lost plane is tragic and curious, but barring a plot to down the airliner, which seemed increasingly unlikely, it was more probable that the event would not have a major impact on global politics. More sensible networks instead devoted their time to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.

This past week, another airline disaster occurred, this time on another Malaysian Airlines flight, MH17, which crashed in the Ukraine. Within hours of the crash, it became quite evident that the plane had been shot down by pro-Russian rebels who thought they were shooting down a Ukranian troop transport plane. Every news network quickly latched onto the story, and rightly so - this mass civilian casualty amounted to a heinous act that would demand a major response from the international community and a rethinking of its invasion strategy by Russia. Naturally, CNN also reported on the story, and at the time of the writing of this article they are still doing so (now that the time is just over one week later). The story is no longer the top headline story on CNN, although it is a major story, as the developments are increasingly slow to come in and other stories have demanded CNN's attention, even as talk of “war crimes” circulates and the world waits with bated breath to see how Russia will respond.

In essence, CNN devoted more top headline news time to the disappearance of MH370 than they did to the deliberate shooting down of MH17. Both events were unfortunate and raise many questions, however the former event seems likely to be an accident whereas the later seems to be tantamount to an act of war. As such, it would seem reasonable to expect the latter story to get greater traction on major news networks, yet CNN had the inverse story remain true, speculating aimlessly at the expense of real news. Only time will tell how the CNN coverage of the MH17 downing will fully play out, however it does currently seem clear that this is simply not a top priority for CNN - they would rather report on “mystery” stories that draw in viewers, rather than on real news that effects counties or cultures. Naturally this is the right of CNN as a network to do, however it does not make the story any more valid, and in time hopefully this journalism approach will change. In the meantime, viewers of the world who want to learn the news rather than to fill their heads with fantastical notions are better off locating Al Jazeera TV, or at the least trying to gain access to BBC's news coverage.

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