Wired smartly curates ‘A Startling Simple Theory’

Someone at Wired deserves credit (and bonus pay) for curated news journalism well-done. Story “A Startlingly Simple Theory About the Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet” is original content that provides fresh perspective about Flight 370. The tech news site plucks this gem from Google+, where aviator Chris Goodfellow posted five days earlier. Wired sources the original, acknowledging authorship and curation: “We’ve copyedited it with his permission”.

The Plus post shows social sharing’s strengths, where the interaction in comments extends the storytelling (as does the broader Reddit thread that captures Chris’ post and many others). It’s unfortunate Google+ limits comments to 500, cutting off the conversation.

The aviator’s theory is sensibly simple. Why so? Occam’s Razor. Merriam-Webster online:

A scientific and philosophic rule that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily which is interpreted as requiring that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities.

Occam’s Razor is one of my life principles, and should be yours, too. Conspiracies can be fun contemplating, but often defy reality. The simpler explanation often is rightest.
Chris proposes, based on the sudden turn back and the heading, that the Boeing 777 suffered some calamity—perhaps an electrical fire. He writes:

Instinctively when I saw that left turn with a direct heading I knew he was heading for an airport. Actually he was taking a direct route to Palau Langkawi a 13,000 foot strip with an approach over water at night with no obstacles…Take a look on Google Earth at this airport. This pilot did all the right things. He was confronted by some major event onboard that made him make that immediate turn back to the closest safe airport.

In that scenario, the plane continued on course because the crew couldn’t change it, being quite possibly incapacitated or asphyxiated, and the autopilot continued control until fuel ran out.

This theory may not pan out, of course. I draw attention to it for another reason. The missing flight easily is meme of the year. The Internet can’t get enough of this mystery. Wired advances the news story by tapping into social media. News organizations can’t produce all the good original content that draws in audience. Curating the post is a brilliant editorial decision.

It’s even smarter in context of Slate’s smacking response: “A ‘Startlingly Simple Theory About the Missing Airliner is Sweeping the Internet. It’s Wrong.” by writer Jeff Wise. He writes:

Goodfellow’s posting may be the most (first?) popular thing ever to have come out of Google Plus. After exploding across Twitter, it was reprinted by Wired and praised by James Fallows of the Atlantic, who wrote, ‘his explanation makes better sense than anything else I’ve heard so far’.

Goodfellow’s account is emotionally compelling, and it is based on some of the most important facts that have been established so far. And it is simple—to a fault. Take other major findings of the investigation into account, and Goodfellow’s theory falls apart. For one thing, while it’s true that MH370 did turn toward Langkawi and wound up overflying it, whoever was at the controls continued to maneuver after that point as well, turning sharply right at VAMPI waypoint, then left again at GIVAL. Such vigorous navigating would have been impossible for unconscious men.

I share similar misgivings about Chris’ theory—except the news reporting about the missing flight is terrible. There is too much information credited to too many unnamed sources, which feeds crazy conspiracies. Wired offers a refreshing perspective, written by a pilot, who is identified. He isn’s some paid aviation consultant or unnamed source. The writer is named and accountable, presenting a theory that is much more believable than a hijacking where 236 people are mysteriously silent.

What’s missing in the swath of misinformation and conspiracy is motivation that explains why the airliner flew for perhaps another 7 hours to the Indian Ocean, where American officials believe the Boeing 777 crashed. Chris’ theory provides more meaningful context for understanding what might have happened, remembering that nobody really knows.

News reporting is a process, and right now, regarding Flight 370, it’s a process out of control. Mainstream news media processes too much anonymous sourcing, and, near as I can assess, without fully assessing motivation. The “Who benefits?” question absolutely applies, even to official spokespeople, when so many government entities and military organizations are involved. There are many conflicting interests and official secrets to protect.

Wired practices good process journalism by presenting fresh perspective that is curated from the social web. The storytelling is compelling, provocative, and engaging. As I explain in my new book Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers, “process journalism is all about audience participation, and the value to sustaining readership and producing original content cannot be understated”.

The storytelling doesn’t end with Chris’ post or Wired’s republishing, but begins. Slate’s response, Google+ and Wired commenters, and all the discussion elsewhere improves the storytelling and news gathering process. The audience participates. Kudos, Wired editors.

Photo Credit: Aero Icarus