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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14 Responses

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

    by Pete from Sydney on Jul 23, 2014 at 1:55 pm

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

    by klewso on Jul 23, 2014 at 3:18 pm

  3. …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.

    by Ian Brown on Jul 23, 2014 at 3:32 pm

  4. 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.

    by stuart richardson on Jul 23, 2014 at 6:06 pm

  5. Is journalism all about “reaction” nowadays?

    by klewso on Jul 23, 2014 at 7:09 pm

  6. 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!

    by Harold Rogers on Jul 23, 2014 at 7:45 pm

  7. 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:, 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.

    by Colin D on Jul 23, 2014 at 10:18 pm

  8. 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.


    by Harold Rogers on Jul 24, 2014 at 8:41 am

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

    by Ross Carnsew on Jul 24, 2014 at 10:54 am

  10. 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 .

    by Harold Rogers on Jul 24, 2014 at 12:56 pm

  11. 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.

    by Ross Carnsew on Jul 24, 2014 at 3:06 pm

  12. 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.

    by Harold Rogers on Jul 24, 2014 at 4:08 pm

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

    by Ross Carnsew on Jul 24, 2014 at 4:18 pm

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

    by Colin D on Jul 24, 2014 at 4:48 pm

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