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100 AIDS researchers on MH17? Why and how the media got it wrong

In the midst of generally careful, sensitive reporting on the MH17 tragedy there was one large misstep. Here’s what happened, and why people believed it.

In the midst of generally careful, sensitive reporting on the MH17 tragedy there was one large misstep. For much of Friday and the next day, most of the Australian media gave its readers the wrong impression over the number of AIDS researchers travelling to Melbourne for an international AIDS conference onboard the flight.

Early reports said 100 researchers had died, a figure sometimes given as precisely as 108 deaths. It was reported in every major news outlet, and from there, relayed to the world. The figure was wrong — the number of confirmed dead who were heading to the conference was six, and while it’s possible further names will be released, it can’t get up to 100 or anywhere near that.

So where did the figure come from, and why did the media get it so wrong? Even with the benefit of hindsight, the genesis is not easily established.

The figure came from attendees at the Friday session of the International Indigenous Pre-Conference on HIV and AIDS held in Sydney, a precursor to the 20th International AIDS conference in Melbourne, which started on Sunday. Crikey spoke to several pre-conference attendees who said they first heard the number during a moment of silence for the victims of the crash as well as those who had died of HIV/AIDS. “During the welcome, there was an announcement about the crash, and we were told that there were fears up to 100 passengers might have been AIDS conference delegates,” a conference attendee told Crikey. But we’ve also been told, through people involved in organising the conference, that they were under strict instructions not to give total figures, and that the minute of silence did not put the death toll at a specific number. The figure, says one, was seized upon “in a moment of extreme grief”.

It’s worth stressing that. Those early hours, with news of the crash and possible deaths slowly leaking out, were full of chaos and confusion for the attendees at the pre-conference. Some people were sobbing — terrified for their colleagues and friends in the close-knit HIV research community. People’s recollections can often be imprecise in times of emotional trauma.

Crikey asked the AIDS 2014 conference whether any of the speakers or others involved in organisation ever gave the 100 figure in a session. We were told the conference would not be commenting on that at this time.

However the figure originally came around, it was soon tweeted by conference attendees, who could not comment on its veracity but told  journalists who called that it was what they had heard. This was undeniably true — the figure was widely discussed. And early reports generally made clear that the figure was unverified.

For example, a piece published in The Age by Steve Lillebuen said the conference was not releasing numbers, but the 100 figure was what attendees had been told.  It’s worth noting that in that piece, the 100 figure did not make the title, which read: “Crash claims top AIDS researchers heading to Melbourne”. It was clear from very early in the day that some researchers had died in the crash, including respected researcher Dr Joep Lange. The piece in The Australian also didn’t put the figure in the title, though it’s worth noting its introduction is considerably stronger:

More than 100 AIDS activists, researchers and health workers bound for a major conference in Melbourne were on the Malaysia Airlines flight downed in the Ukraine.

It is believed that delegates to the 20th International AIDS Conference, due to begin on Sunday, will be informed today that 108 of their colleagues and family members died on MH17.”

Most other pieces, including ones in The Australian Financial Review and The Guardian did put the figure in the title. The Fin’s piece has been updated online (it now makes no reference to the 100 killed), but the Weekend AFR’s print edition went hard on the figure on page 5:

Many pieces on the MH17 crash in general began to draw in the figure into their reporting, often without the nuance with which it had been communicated in earlier reports. Foreign news outlets were even less likely to mention that the figure was unconfirmed. CNBC’s headline read: “A third of MH17 passengers were AIDS conference delegates”. The first line restated that contention, attributing it to reports in “several Australian media sources”. Wire services like AFP generally printed the claim with the word “reportedly” in front of it, without outlining exactly where the figure came from and that conference organisers were not confirming it. The UK’s Telegraph was even more definitive —  it stated the figure as fact without mentioning anything about where it came from. With every iteration, the specifics were lost.

By that night, the figure was all but established — reported on by every major news organisation in the country and many more internationally. It was even mentioned by US President Barack Obama in his press conference the next day. Pressed by The Washington Post on where he had gotten the figure from when it was  later revealed only six conference attendees had died, Obama said it was in speeches used by Tony Abbott.

How could unconfirmed reports get this far? Partly because the figure was believable. The conference had 12,000 delegates coming to Melbourne, and MH17 was connecting to a Melbourne-bound flight. And around 200 of the passengers were Dutch — which seemed a high number to many at the conference. Why would so many Dutch be heading Australia’s direction in the middle of winter?

Journalists did try to clarify the figure, an AIDS  2014 conference spokeswoman told us. “Many journalists asked us but we were not able to confirm anything until we had confirmation from the authorities and permission from their families,” she said.

That confirmation came later, and included six names, not the expected 100. It took until Saturday morning for Malaysia Airlines to contact all the families of the people on the flight, and thus be in a position to release a passenger manifest. The conference’s statement on the six passengers who were conference attendees came shortly after — at 12.15pm on Saturday.

For a day and a half, that left an information vacuum, one filled filled by reports reliant on what people who couldn’t have had access to full information at that point had heard being said by others.

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  • 1
    Pete from Sydney
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    most of the Australian media” ..I think you’re overstating just a little Myriam?

  • 2
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    So the media - with their heads for figures while jumping to conclusions - add one and one and get 100 this time?

  • 3
    Ian Brown
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    …and MH17 was connecting to a Melbourne-bound flight. And around 200 of the passengers were Dutch — which seemed a high number to many at the conference. Why would so many Dutch be heading Australia’s direction in the middle of winter?”

    Why assume they were all heading to Australia - no doubt MH17 was also connecting with many other flights to Asian ports. My understanding is that the 200 Dutch passengers were on MH 17, not the connecting flight to Melbourne.

  • 4
    stuart richardson
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    If only crikey could print a similar article showing that the growing trend demonizing Putin has exactly the same basis;no facts, just hearsay.Evidence is no longer required by journalists.

  • 5
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Is journalism all about “reaction” nowadays?

  • 6
    Harold Rogers
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    the growing trend demonizing Putin has exactly the same basis;no facts, just hearsay”

    My god such naivety and incredible head in the sand. Take a walk down the street into any Moscow bar and have a talk to the people who have to live under this regime. I wonder why all the ones with money seem to leave. Dont insult the poor bast..s who cant get out. Please move there and get a first hand view before gob opens!

  • 7
    Colin D
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    In the midst of generally careful, sensitive reporting on the MH17 tragedy …”

    Hmmm. Getting the AIDS Conference delegates numbers wrong was unfortunate but to some extent understandable amid the inevitable confusion in the early hours after the event.

    Going off half-cocked and blaming the Russians point blank, with no evidence whatsoever apart from some dodgy You Tube video and social media stuff, like almost all mainstream media here and in the western world (given the ease with which so many westerners would believe Russia to be the bad guys) was totally inexcusable.

    The fact is that Mr Putin has been demonised by the media for this incident without any hard evidence. Whatever else he might do in Russia, where he is the elected leader in what passes for democracy in that part of the world (and who are we to lecture Russia on democracy - our PM is leader of a party that got just over 32% of the primary vote last election: http://results.aec.gov.au/17496/Website/HouseStateFirstPrefsByParty-17496-NAT.htm), there is as yet no evidence that a court of law would accept as implicating Russia to the death of anyone on MH17.

    Such evidence might come after a proper investigation, but unless and until it does, I suggest the politicians and the media SHUT THE HELL UP about the cause of this disaster and stop spreading hatred and vilification. This is how wars start. Stop it.

  • 8
    Harold Rogers
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Colin D,

    Wonderful typical diplomatic blurb which Putin always relies on to come from the “talkers”.

    Has the site been looted? Where are all the wedding rings?

    Lets follow the typical diplomatic process like with Qaddaffi, Idi Amin, Rwanda , Somalia ad infinitum lest we get in trouble . Tut tut.

    Yes exactly shut everybody up and lets all become Chamberlains.

    Pathetic.

  • 9
    Ross Carnsew
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Harold Rogers,
    “Has the site been looted? Where are all the wedding rings?”
    Well gosh, Putin must have stolen them! Invasion Now!!

  • 10
    Harold Rogers
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Ross C

    Wonderful to see the kow towing and excuses in these columns and total apathy to the deaths of innocents.

    So typical these days with the condescending attitudes. Gee we might cause a war or OK shoot down a few more planes no problem for us we’ll find a myriad of ways to show our condescension to a bigger power. The poor victims .

  • 11
    Ross Carnsew
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    You are right Harold. My sincere sympathy goes to the famalies of the victims. But please don’t embark on revenge attacks in their name. Check out how that works in Gaza. Better that you attack myself and others on this site, where you can do no real harm.

  • 12
    Harold Rogers
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    They do’nt need false sympathy they need retribution. If it was my family I wouldn’t be bothered to be here talking to you.

    Gaza — You are referring to a 1300 year old war.

    Both sides wont cop rockets being fired at their children so they respond appropriately instead of mealy mouthed condescensions.

    Show me a conflict in the world which has been solved by appeasement!

    The death of passion for fellow country men in Australia is well and truly here. This incident and it’s responses has been quite an enlightenment for me.

    And you consider my comments an “attack” …my god wrong planet.

  • 13
    Ross Carnsew
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    No worries Harold. Sorry for the fake sympathy. Hope the retribution works out for you.

  • 14
    Colin D
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if the warring parties in Gaza might now decide that 1300 years of retribution hasn’t got them very far.

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