MH370: Reuters gets it wrong

…and so does Slate.

On Thursday, the Australian Transportation Safety Board released a report (5MB .pdf) detailing how they decided on the next search location in the hunt for flight MH370.

The report is an outstanding example of how to do these things. Assumptions are defined, logic trails are laid out, what is known is kept separate from what is unknown. It’s a far cry from the joke that was the Indonesian government’s report.

On page 34 (39th page of the .pdf) they describe their End of Flight Scenario. But first, they put in a disclaimer:

Note: Given the imprecise nature of the SATCOM data, it was necessary to make some assumptions regarding pilot control inputs in order to define a search area of a practical size. These assumptions were only made for the purposes of defining a search area and there is no suggestion that the investigation authority will make similar assumptions.

Got that? “We had to narrow down the options, so we chose this one“. It was at he top of the section, and it was in boldface. They then go on to say:

Given these observations, the final stages of the unresponsive crew/ hypoxia event type appeared to best fit the available evidence for the final period of MH370’s flight when it was heading in a generally southerly direction:

Immediately after their scenario description, they insert another boldface disclaimer:

Note: This suggestion is made for the sole purpose of assisting to define a search area. The determination of the actual factors involved in the loss of MH370 are the responsibility of the accident investigation authority and not the SSWG.

So, what’s the Reuters headline? “Malaysia jet passengers likely suffocated, Australia says“. And the article, unlike many on the web, tracks with the headline — everybody was incapacitated by hypoxia. And what’s the Slate headline? “MH370 Passengers “Most Likely” Died of Hypoxia Before Crash, Report Says“. They go on to say “It does not appear to have suggested why passengers and crew might have lost access to oxygen.” Translation: it was a story that was too good to check, so we didn’t read the report.

The fact is, the passengers and crew could have been unresponsive because they were dead of hypoxia, or because they were dead of a murder-suicide, or because the crew was locked in the cockpit playing honeymoon bridge while the passengers were relaxing in the back with their small lemon-soaked paper napkins.

We don’t know what happened. The scenario is one that fits what’s known, so let’s use that to extrapolate what’s unknown. And then we’re at the mercy of the media.

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