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. 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.”
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