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.