For most of my career I’ve worked in the field of communications; either external – punting out press releases and briefing journalists, or internal, writing staff messages and newsletters. One buzz word that seems to constantly crop up when discussing best practice for writing communications, either for internal audiences or for marketing, is ‘story telling’. Truly effective communications, it is said, tell a story. Successful organisations and brands must create narratives, patterns, paradigms, and allow people to emotionally connect with the message they are trying to send out. Humans are compelled to ask questions, to seek knowledge, to reason, to look for meaning in information. They want to know the story – the people involved, the emotions, the experiences and the background. Anthropologists acknowledge that storytelling is a common feature in almost all cultures around the world.
My boyfriend Tom is terrible at telling stories. He starts them half-way through, assumes that people know the others involved, gets the details confused, and then frequently trails off without giving the ending. I must admit that I do gently rib him for it, and his attempts at telling stories in company usually end with me taking over the storytelling myself to give some satisfaction to our bemused friends who are desperately trying to follow exactly who was involved and what happened.
This need for understanding, for reason, for the ending of the story is, I believe, why the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane has got underneath all of our collective skin. I know I’m not the only person who found themselves glued to the news coverage in the initial days, and then weeks, after it went missing. It is the reason why 183 passengers can be confirmed dead in a ferry disaster (with 121 still missing) and it receive a certain level of news coverage, but that 239 people missing from an aircraft can receive an almost constant stream of worldwide media exposure, dominating the news agenda and front pages for days and weeks after it disappeared. In the ferry disaster, we have the perpetrators – 15 crew arrested and a negligent Captain issuing televised apologies. We understand what happened – a listing vessel, a delayed evacuation and a ferry that eventually sank. There are survivors – 174 people who were rescued from the ferry, who have told their stories to news crews and allowed the media and investigators to piece together what happened – producing timelines and analysing data. And of course we have the ferry itself, a stricken vessel now being explored and probed by divers and robots.
With flight MH370 we have very little. We have no survivors. No aeroplane, or indeed any wreckage. No motive, no perpetrator, no real evidence or answers. A beginning to the story but no tangible middle, or end. Relatives are now facing the possibility that they may never know what happened to their loved ones, and the lack of answers has led to protests outside of the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing. It is unbelievable to us that a Boeing 777 aircraft can disappear with 239 people on board, and six weeks later for us to still have very little information on what happened, as if it vanished into thin air. Not only do we find it unbelievable, we find it unacceptable. There is an anger, not only from relatives, but from people around the world, that this should have been allowed to happen. We are angry, not truly because of an empathy for the families, but because we are being denied an opportunity to ask why, and to receive answers. We believe we have a right to distraught survivors in magazine spreads and documentaries, reliving the disaster for our own curiosity. To a ‘bad guy’ – the unmasking of the dark force that can send aeroplanes crashing into oceans. We require complicated graphics in newspapers and online news articles, and experts spouting technical terms that we don’t fully understand but know to be the truth of what happened. We require the story, the narrative, the human elements. Until we have this, the aeroplane that vanished will be a fixture in our headlines long after the ferry has sunk.
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