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Big vs. Little

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Two recent disasters highlight the fact that reporting the facts isn’t always the priority.  And I don’t mean not reporting them is.

Malaysian Flight 370 disappeared three weeks ago and only in the last couple of days have authorities in Malaysia begun to specifically refer to the jet as “lost”, not crashed however.  Part of the reason for that is because although many countries have reported seeing, with the help of their satellites, debris, none of it has been confirmed to be part of the doomed jet.  Because of very rough winter seas, flight crews never seem to find the debris and so it can’t even be located, let alone retrieved and confirmed.

Meanwhile, families of the 239 souls onboard believe the Malaysian government has mismanaged and withheld critical information from the beginning.  And in a rare public protest, the Chinese government allowed the mostly Chinese families to march to the Malaysian embassy in Beijing and demand the Malaysian Ambassador address their anger directly.  (The Chinese historically have no problem if its people want to protest in the streets against a foreign government).

The Malaysian government has all but refused to expressly say all passengers are dead.  But after 17 days, the Prime Minister did finally say “I must inform you that according to this new data, Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean”.  The Malaysian government seems to have been struggling between compassion, protecting military secrets, defending national honor and preventing anymore damage to their national airline’s reputation and tourism industry.

At least a few of those may sound like cold and calculated concerns.  But with the recent disclosures by Edward Snowden, it is a likelihood that surveillance by many nations captured more than we will ever know but will never know because of issues of national security.  A nation protecting how it knows what it knows will always be its highest priority.  And as far as damaging tourism, Vietnam Investment Review (VIR) notes that some Chinese travel agencies have stopped booking flights to the country.  Besides a 10% drop in tourism since the start of the year, the loss of Chinese travelers could push the total loss to near 14%.

But opinion on fate of the passengers, even this far into the disaster, is not universal according to something Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.

‘“As long as there is a glimmer of hope, our search efforts will carry on.”’

And that comment goes a long way toward explaining why Snohomish County Washington has not, as of today, significantly updated the death toll of people who may have perished from the worst landslide in the history of the Pacific Northwest.  On Saturday, March 22nd at 10:37 a.m., a one square mile section of a hillside facing the Stillaguamish River between the cities of Arlington and Darrington gave way.  Ninety people are confirmed missing.  Twenty six bodies have been found, but as of this writing, only 17 people have been declared dead.

Listening to Snohomish County sheriff Lt. Rob Palmer choke up when describing the conditions rescue workers are trying to negotiate, two things stick out.  This work is taking a huge emotional toll on the entire community.  And secondly and perhaps more importantly, it’s still being called a “rescue” effort rather than a “recovery” effort.  In fact, I noticed that stories of rescues from the earliest days of the disaster were being broadcast as recently as today.  A hopeful story, even if eight days old, counterbalances the horror.

All reporters know that in the fog of disaster, like war, the first casualty is the facts.  In the first hours, days and even weeks after something catastrophic, truths are discovered, turned over, distilled and either kept and added to the body of knowledge or discarded as useless. Likewise, authorties can choose to restrict or withhold information for any number of political or economically based reasons.

But sometimes, despite the facts, people are just not ready to give up.  And they certainly aren’t ready to say goodbye.

UPDATE: As of April 15 @ 1600, the number of confirmed missing has been reduced to 7 and the number of identified dead has increased to 37.

Written by Interviewer

March 29, 2014 at 11:20