On Tuesday morning, Germanwings Airlines flight 4U 9525 crashed in the French Alps, likely killing all 150 or so passengers and crew. Preliminary (unconfirmed) information says that the Airbus A320 descended rapidly, but under control, to 6,000 feet from its cruising altitude of 38,000 ft., then crashed. With little confirmed information about the crash, cable news did the sensible thing: went to wall-to-wall coverage of something they knew almost nothing about.
From a business perspective, this makes a certain amount of sense, because if a viewer tunes in to your network looking for news about the plane crash, by God, you'd better have a file photo of an airplane on the screen. From a journalism perspective, though, this sort of coverage necessarily leads to speculation, which is poor journalism at best, and irresponsible at worst.
All speculation is not created equal, of course, so while all three networks engaged aviation experts to discuss the possible causes of the crash, there was a race against time to see who would be the first to speculate about a possible terrorist attack. For several hours, they danced around the subject with references to "criminal" acts, and the occasional reminder that we can't rule out terrorism, but finally, MSNBC's expert cracked under the pressure:
"When you have extreme cascading emergencies or if this was, and this is pure speculation, if this was a man-made event, a terror event in which the cockpit was under siege, the pilots would have their hands full, and their first responsibility is to aviate, save the airplane, not to communicate. The fact that they put the code in, although we would expect communication, is sufficient and satisfies all regulation."
Well, at least it was "pure" speculation," not some shitty, stepped-on guesswork. Within an hour or so, of course, NBC News would be reporting that the flight crew actually didn't punch in that coded SOS, French air traffic controllers did. Within minutes of that new reporting, another MSNBC expert upgraded the crash from "maybe terrorism" to "What else could it be?":
"This does not look to me like anything but a hijacking. That's my guess. It may turn out to be totally wrong, but I can't see any other explanation."
Fox News was first to report that President Obama has been briefed on the crash, and that an NSC spokesperson says that "There is no indication of a nexus to terrorism at this time.”
At this early stage, with the wreckage strewn across a remote area, there's little that is known at this point, and so a lot can change. Hell, it actually might turn out to be terrorism, but that's not the point. Journalism isn't supposed to be about guessing, it's supposed to be about facts.
From the first minutes of this story, of course, all three cable networks engaged in rampant speculation, just not about terrorism, and this phenomenon has become the norm for big breaking news stories. Time after time, the harm that can be caused by speculation has been demonstrated, and yet 24 hour news fails to learn the lesson. Even after the Boston Marathon Bombing, where bad reporting stomped all over the place like Godzilla, the Speculate and Bloviate model still dominates, and the reason is simple: there's virtually no downside.
Sure, they catch a little hell when they get facts wrong, like the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision or any of the many things CNN wrongly reported during the Boston manhunt, but speculation, as long as it's clearly labeled, is all in the game. In the meantime, though, we get people spun up over threats that may or may not exist, like "dark-skinned individuals" or cockpit sieges, producing nothing of value, and risking harm. The alternative, to develop enough trust in your audience that they won't change the channel the minute you cut away to a story you do know something about, is unthinkable.