A Decade Later: MH370's lasting impact on media transformation

The crisis led to intense media interest globally.

08 Mar 2024 05:03pm
Hishammuddin (centre) addresses a press conference stating that they have received new satellite images during the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. AFP FILE PIX
Hishammuddin (centre) addresses a press conference stating that they have received new satellite images during the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. AFP FILE PIX

As I woke up on March 8, 2014, I was set to head to Dataran Merdeka for a scheduled rally but as I checked messages on my phone, I realise something bigger was happening - Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370 is missing.

At first thought - I must be dreaming (it was 4am), after all how can an aircraft so huge go missing with hundreds of passengers on board but messages kept coming in about the ‘rumours’.

I immediately called my contact at Malaysia Airlines just to seek confirmation whether the information coming in was real or merely fake stories.

The source immediately answered, I could hear panic in her voice as she confirmed the plane went off the radar and the team was ascertaining their next step as they were locating the jetliner.

The passenger plane was travelling from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) to Beijing Capital International Airport with 227 passengers and 12 crew commanded by senior pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah and first officer Fariq Abdul Hamid.

Majority of the plane’s passengers, 153 in total were citizens of China, followed by 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five from India, three French citizens, four Americans, two each from New Zealand, Ukraine and Canada, and one each from Russia, Italy, Netherlands and Austria respectively.

Minutes later, word got in that the plane had landed in Nanning, another city in China but as I was writing a story on it, the MAS source debunked the rumours and clarified that the plane of matter of fact, did not land there.

After sending the first story to break the news of the plane’s disappearance, I made my way to Sepang as the authorities began setting up the command centre.

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At this point, I’m not going to lie, my anxiety was off the charts. Did I mention I was merely seven months into the job? I was a rookie journalist and I was the first from my then-media organisation who arrived at the command centre. So many things were going through my mind, I needed to be aware of everything, be everywhere and look out for everyone - all at once.

People began to gather in the command centre, those for then Civil Aviation Department (now Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia), various ministries, the police and of course media members.

The crisis led to intense media interest globally, hence the press conference hall was filled with hundreds of media personnel – both international and local media. Some were even starstruck to see familiar international faces from CNN and BBC.

At that time, I was reporting for a print newspaper and our online portal was slowly building up so reporters were expected to be fast and accurate thus when it came to huge events like this, we were expected to send one-liner alerts and online stories fast. People out there wanted to know immediately, they did not want to wait for tomorrow's paper to read yesterday's news.

In the first press conference, then Defence Minister, who was acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and former MAS Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya were present and spoke about what happened, when they realised the plane went missing, how much more fuel was left at the point of disappearance and details of the passengers on board.

Back to ground zero, it was breaking news and people wanted updates fast hence all reporters on the ground were writing while the minister spoke. Imagine tweeting on adrenaline but in your WhatsApp working group.

As my on-ground colleagues had not arrived at Sepang, the people from the newsroom helped in terms of blasting Twitter (now known as X) and completely utilising the social media platforms from the press conference which was aired live on national television. (I wanted to say newsrooms were blasting Twitter threads but the add tweet feature only arrived in 2017)

Also, at the time, several local television channel could not broadcast their updates on the first day either due to lack of clearance or experience but international media such as CNN had continuous, non-stop updates but the local media catch up in the coming days.

Since March 8, media personnel worked tirelessly for weeks. I personally had to work for two weeks straight without any off days - there were no reason not to work. We wanted to be there, we needed to be there, we needed to make sure valid information was being put out to the public. Us journalists, needed to make sure the correct questions were asked. There was constant development and we needed to be in Sepang daily, be it in the command centre waiting for updates from the authorities or with the next-of-kin of those aboard the flight in hotels. News on MH370 were the front pages of newspapers and headline stories on news channels for nearly two to three months.

Even up to this day, if I drive up to Sepang and passed by Sama-Sama hotel or KLIA, I still have the shiver thinking of the most intense two weeks of my life and about the 239 souls who disappeared into thin air.

Despite still being one of the biggest aviation mystery up to this day, the MH370 crisis definitely changed the media reporting landscape in Malaysia and it promoted the use of new media to get to the readers faster. The event also encapsulated how serious the impact of fake news was at the time.

During crisis like these, people turned to social media for updates and there were several conspiracy theories on social media on how the airplane had been hijacked and it was flown to Diego Garcia, an island of the British Indian Ocean Territory and many more.

A study from University Sains Malaysia titled ‘Post-MH370 Incident: A Comparative Study of Social Media Users' Perception in China and Malaysia’ revealed that 80 per cent of Malaysian respondents relied on social media as their primary channel for information about the incident, while in China, 68 per cent of respondents used social media for updates on MH370.

The shift highlighted the changing landscape of news consumption, with social media becoming a major source of news stories and crisis communication tools during large-scale disasters like the MH370 incident.

The study also revealed differences in how Malaysian and Chinese respondents engaged with social media content related to MH370, with Malaysians focusing more on the current situation while Chinese respondents paid attention to conspiracy theories about the flight.

However, it was clear that social media played a crucial role in relaying news to the readers quickly and it also proved to be a platform to be used in crisis communication strategy post-MH370 as it helped rebuild consumer trust in MAS when they used Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram to communicate messages.

Now, a decade later, many newsrooms have completely gone digital or are putting digital first and we have to ensure that legit stories are being given to our readers – it’s a race of time with citizen journalists who do not have to get their stories fact-checked first.

In any case, we want relatives of such tragic cases to get only the authentic news, not just conspiracies being thrown out by ‘experts’ out there.

Until today, the families of MH370 victims are still searching for answers on where their loved ones could have been, what happened to them and to at least get some sort of closure and I sincerely hope that they will be able to get that closure someday.

Good night, Malaysian three seven zero.