The Wall Street Journal’s Adam Najberg on what the MH370 story says about modern journalism, the news cycle and Malaysia’s relationship with the media

Adam NajbergAdam Najberg is the editor of asia.WSJ.com, The Wall Street Journal’s Asian digital edition.

In this interview with Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks yesterday, the journalist talked about what the MH370 story says about modern journalism, the news cycle, and the relationship between the Malaysian government and the media.

There has been some curious reporting on the MH370 story, such as Channel NewsAsia’s headline ‘Defence Minister on missing MH370 flight’. What stands out for you as the best and worst reporting on the missing plane so far?

I would say this, but I think The Wall Street Journal has led the reporting of the story – and in two areas. One of the first breaks was the news that the plane was flying for four or five hours longer than originally believed. That changed the complexion of the story completely.

WSJ graphic shows flight radius of plane flying for five hours after losing contact

WSJ graphic shows flight radius of plane flying for five hours after losing contact

The maps used to show people the flight path of the plane went from a tiny thing around the Straits to Malacca to something that stretched far and wide into Straits of India.

This is not the sort of story we do victory laps over, but it did show that we have the boots on the ground and the contacts to get keep on top of the story as it changes. Another critical juncture in the story was the Inmarsat satellite data, which we had information on too.

But some news outlets didn’t have a good time of it. CNN has received some criticism for its non-stop coverage, and used its ‘Reliable Sources’ journalism show to defend itself. [CNN also got a location caption wrong on its story about grieving families of MH370 passengers, labeling Kuala Lumpur as the capital of Indonesia].

Half the problem of covering a story like this, is that there’s so much noise. Anyone with a theory has been throwing stuff out there on Twitter. We’ve been spending a lot of time filtering out that noise. That’s the biggest challenge that comes with a story like this. Even five years ago, we weren’t confronted by such a torrent of conflicting information that we had to sort through.

How can tell who has the best sources of information?

Of course, you can’t right away until the facts have been verified. The Daily Mail definitely had a good source; they came out with some cool tit-bits of information. Reuters also had someone who knew a lot. It’s difficult to tell where their sources came from, but I’m fairly certain no one has a source inside the Malaysian government (I haven’t seen anyone consistently providing Malaysia-sourced information). A source inside the US or the UK’s intelligence services is more likely.

There have been some odd stories that have emerged in the wake of the MH370 mystery, such as a video of a shaman trying to find the plane that went viral. Which story stands out for you that took the most interesting angle?

One of bad things to emerge is that, in Malaysia, all roads seem lead to Anwar [Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, who was linked to the pilot of the missing plane]. How the heck does he have anything to do with this? It was like Groundhog Day and goes back to the days of the Mahatir [Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister, who stepped down in 2003]. It’s distracting and doesn’t add to the coverage. Whoever jumped on that was barking up the wrong tree.

Image: WSJ Live

Diversion: Iranians with stolen passports

Another diversion was the two Iranian passengers who were let on the plane with stolen passports. We learned from Interpol that there are 40 million of them in circulation, and the story morphed into another story about the millions of people around the world with stolen passports. In Malaysia, your fingers are scanned as you pass through immigration, so it was strange to me that people carrying stolen passports could pass through a country that uses biometrics to verify identity. More broadly, it was surprising that stolen passports is such a huge issue, and it took this story to bring the issue to the surface.

Shaman videoNow, the good thing about the shaman episode of the story was that it forced the government to engage with the media. There has been a tendency from Mahatir’s time, which has carried on to this day, to not say much. And when they do finally come out blasting, it’s always someone else’s fault. But in this case, they had to do a fair amount of image control. I hesitate to use the word Western, but it was a much more Western approach to crisis management that was eventually deployed.

Another curious part of the story was the psychic who was going to hold a press conference to reveal what happened to the plane. But they hurriedly cancelled when information on floating debris found in the ocean leaked on Twitter and story moved on.

How do you feel Malaysia Airlines’ PR team could have improve the way they briefed and responded to questions from journalists when the news first emerged that the plane was missing, and as time has progressed?

In Malaysia, this is a fairly touchy subject. Because of the government’s large stake in Malaysia Airlines, the brand is identified with the country. And so it’s a national government story rather than a Malaysia Airlines story. You wouldn’t connect, say, the US government with Delta Airlines in the same way. Again, it’s a legacy of the Mahatir days when the boss is the one who talks.

Malaysia Airlines is company that has been in trouble before. It has had issues over profitability and management. Though never in the same league as Singapore Airlines, at one time the brand was up there with Thai Airways or Garuda. But it hasn’t been steadily profitable for a long time. This is partly because it has had to serve the national interest, and fly to routes that don’t make money.

There was a lot about Malaysia that you could say was very good before this story broke. National projects such as airports and development zones were started by Mahatir, and Malaysia was seen as a developing country on the rise. However, much of that has turned out to be a white elephant, and this story doesn’t help Malaysia’s image.

Neither does the spotlight that has fallen on Malaysia’s leaders, who were clearly uncomfortable in this situation. I ask myself if the response would have been similar in, say Romania or Kenya, and the answer is probably yes. But they have shown that they can adapt their behaviour on the fly, and we haven’t seen the wild and crazy posturing of the Mahatir days, when Jews or outside influences were somehow blamed for everything via an unsubstantiated rant. We’ve seen a more measured response.

And in Malaysia’s dealings with China, the story showed that there really is no such thing as Asia, and that countries in the region do not trust one another.

Lastly, it was interesting that MAS sent up women in hijab to Beijing from their PR team. This wasn’t viewed in a very good way by sensitive and distraught Chinese families of the missing. This is not a politically correct issue, and I don’t condone it, but when you’re dealing with distraught Chinese in China, perhaps loading up your team with fluent or native speakers in Western dress might have been more soothing, at the time.

What do you think the MH370 story tells us about the relationship between the Malaysian government and the media?

There are still arrests without trial, and there is still suppression of the press in Malaysia. And in the first week, some of the tactics to put information out were very Mahatir-like. But they soon had to back off with some the claims they were making, because journalists were demanding proof.

But their behaviour has been very adaptive. That has been driven by the demand to make the home crowd happy, the tremendous pressure they were put under by the region’s super power, China, and having to deal with the Western media. They didn’t want to look backward or foolish.

By contrast, when the Australian government had news to announce on the potential whereabouts of the missing plane, they appeared more open and straight with the press – even though some of their assertions turned out to be wrong.

What would you say that the missing Malaysia Airlines plane mystery says about the way modern media works and the nature of the news cycle?

That the news cycle is probably shorter than it ever was. Journalism isn’t just about publishing a newspaper anymore. It’s about getting news out as soon as possible. At the Wall Street Journal, we want to be first, but want to be right. And that takes a lot of time in the back office filtering out the garbage.

The MH370 story makes you realise how vast the world is, even though we tend to talk about how small it is. There’s talk about how journalism is going to be saved by short-form content and social media, but when it comes to a story like this, you realise that it’s a marathon not a sprint. No matter how many reporters you have on the ground, you have to grind out the story inch by inch. There are no short cuts.

The tremendous pressure to get news out everyday leads to an array of different types of content, from precious pearls of information to utter rubbish, and it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes.

Has covering this story led to changes in the way The Wall Street Journal now approaches its craft?

WSJ's graphic on plane debris' likely location

WSJ graphic shows where plane debris could be.

The fundamentals of covering a story won’t change. Good journalism is good journalism. But on the digital side of things, we’re starting to think more carefully about the platform of a story and people reading on their mobile devices. How does your story stand out among 20 headlines on a mobile news feed? The answer is being more visual. But that has its own challenges. You can’t take a day to build a graphic. And so we’re taking lessons from the likes of Quartz, Slate and data journalists on how to build graphics and maps. But we want to do so when stories are unfolding – in real time.

This story also showed the limits of some of the newer publications. Without reporters on the scene, they were reduced to putting out essays and speculative, analytical pieces that weren’t necessarily on the news.

The Wall Street Journal is well resourced. But did the MH370 story make you feel where there were areas where you were under resourced?

Actually, we never feel like we have enough resources in Asia. We’ve just added a second news room programmer, someone who can code and build, and we’re about to get a third. We need more people who can help the reader understand what’s going on quicker. We have daily meetings not just to work out how we can we get ahead and unravel a mystery, but how can we inform and help visualize what’s going on better.


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