Why are we so obsessed with Flight 370?

Story highlights

  • Sally Kohn: We're obsessed with missing Malaysia flight; why not other tragedies?
  • Kohn: Stories about death in huge numbers, mystery and innocent victims fascinate us
  • Kohn: Cancer, guns, AIDS, trafficking take many more lives, yet we don't pay attention
  • She says those stories don't have the suddenness and don't push panic buttons

It makes sense that we're all obsessed with the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370. What I find more mysterious is why we aren't obsessed with other arguably more important stories.

The missing Malaysia Airlines plane falls right at the nexus of several gripping story lines in the public narrative. Stories about death inherently hold our attention. The more dark among us -- and HBO producers -- might attribute this to a lust for the gruesome. Freud would simply call it our "death drive" — that mix of fear and fascination that our lives must ultimately end. Regardless, as Jack Schaeffer noted in Reuters, media coverage has always hewed toward dark sensationalism to feed the cravings of a hungry audience.

There's something about death in sudden, large numbers that grabs our attention. Every year, about 32,000 people are killed by guns in the United States. And yet the routine daily suicides and shootings don't seem to command our attention or even our compassion in quite the same way as mass shootings like Aurora or Sandy Hook. Of course, we also respond to whom the victims are: When they are innocent little children, the dismay is more intense.

Sally Kohn

It's not just about numbers — the idea that suddenly a large group of people are harmed. While the unknown fate of the 239 souls aboard the Malaysia flight is unquestionably looming with tragedy, on the same day the plane went missing around 20,000 people died from cancer worldwide. Around 4,000 people worldwide died from AIDS on the same day. In the 11 days since the plane has been missing, more than 1,000 people have likely died from drug overdoses in the United States alone. Why don't we care about these tales of death? Or perhaps more important, how could we care more?

The other gripping story line of the missing Malaysia flight is, of course, the mystery. It's a real whodunnit unfolding live before our very eyes. Adding to the fascination is certainly the fact that, as Farhad Majoo eloquently pointed out in the New York Times, a genuine mystery would seem impossible in our hyper-connected, over-surveilled day and age.

Poll: 60% favor media's plane coverage

    Just Watched

    Poll: 60% favor media's plane coverage

Poll: 60% favor media's plane coverage 03:27
Families frustrated with lack of info

    Just Watched

    Families frustrated with lack of info

Families frustrated with lack of info 02:00
Malaysia probe focuses on westerly turn

    Just Watched

    Malaysia probe focuses on westerly turn

Malaysia probe focuses on westerly turn 01:25
Pilot was 'against any form of extremism'

    Just Watched

    Pilot was 'against any form of extremism'

Pilot was 'against any form of extremism' 01:20

Majoo writes: "The disappearance stands in stark contrast to the hallmark sensation of our time, the certainty that we're all being constantly tracked and that, for better or worse, we're strapped to the grid, never out of touch. It turns out that's not true."

But if that is really the hallmark norm of our era, then why aren't we equally fixated on the fact that in this day and age, 1 million children are exploited by the global commercial sex trade every single year — many disappearing right out from under the eyes of loved ones or government agencies. Shocking, right? But worthy of our 24/7 attention? Apparently not.

"The problem with our always-on culture is that actually, we're not always focused on stuff that matters, just stuff that triggers," says Micah Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum. "The news business has long understood this, but now the rise of social media seems to be making the problem even worse, since it is fragmenting our attention down to the individual level."

Still it raises the question -- what about the things that arguably matter and on some level trigger, just not enough? Is there a way to make the daily scourge of AIDS and child sex trafficking and gun violence as gripping as a missing jumbo jet?

No, says Bea Arthur, a licensed therapist and founder of PrettyPaddedRoom.com. Arthur argues its not just the conflation of compelling plot lines that makes the Malaysia plane story so gripping — it's the fact that it's a lot of people, that it happened suddenly, and that we still don't know what happened. What grabs us is the idea that a plane can suddenly, unpredictably drop out of the sky. It ruptures our need for control.

"People want details because they want to know this won't happen to them," Arthur says. Arthur suggests our fascination with tragedies like the Malaysia plane is less about the basic facts of death or scale or even mystery but simply the egotistical desire to categorically exempt ourselves from whatever new possibility of bad things happening arise out of the story. "It's about ego and self-preservation and wanting some sense of control," Arthur says.

In other words, even though we are more likely to die from cancer (1 in 4 odds for men, 1 in 5 odds for women) than a plane crash (1 in 11,000,000 million odds), cancer feels like a known, even avoidable threat (even if it's not) whereas the missing plane pushes our personal panic button.

The media can keep trying to tell the stories of poor people dying from lack of food and shelter, of children in rural communities and inner cities dying from gun violence, of black and Latina woman disproportionately being infected with and dying from HIV/AIDS. These stories are vital, especially when told in careful ways that don't just elicit individual sympathy but illuminate larger structural implications and the need for solutions. But no matter how numerous, no matter how gruesome and no matter how pressing, these and other critical stories may never pierce our consciousness, let alone capture world attention.

Then again, Arthur points out, the Malaysia plane story is only interesting until it ends.

"Once there's closure ... we'll go on and forget about it, too," she says. "Strange comfort that, in the end, all stories — important or intriguing or in between — fall victim to our short attention span.

      Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

    • nr intv moni basu husbands quiet suffering flight 370_00020822.jpg

      His wife never came home from her flight on MH370, and now K.S. Narendran is left to imagine the worst of possible truths without knowing.
    • This handout photo taken on April 7, 2014 and released on April 9, 2014 by Australian Defence shows Maritime Warfare Officer, Sub Lieutenant Ryan Penrose watching HMAS Success as HMAS Perth approaches for a replenishment at sea while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Two fresh signals have been picked up Australian ship Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, raising hopes that wreckage will be found within days even as black box batteries start to expire.

      Was the sound of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 striking the water captured by ocean devices used to listen for signs of nuclear blasts?
    •  A crew member of a Royal New Zealand Airforce (RNZAF) P-3K2-Orion aircraft helps to look for objects during the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in flight over the Indian Ocean on April 13, 2014 off the coast of Perth, Australia. S

      What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Rene Marsh explains.
    • Caption:A Chinese relative of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 uses a lighter as she prays at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 8, 2014. The hunt for physical evidence that the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed in the Indian Ocean more than three weeks ago has turned up nothing, despite a massive operation involving seven countries and repeated sightings of suspected debris. AFP PHOTO/WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

      Involved parties, including the manufacturer Boeing, are bracing for a long public relations siege.
    • The painstaking search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 got a vote of confidence Friday that the effort is headed in the right direction, but officials noted that much work remains.
Credit: 	CNN

      Official: The four acoustic pings at the center of the search for Flight 370 are no longer believed to have come from the plane's black boxes.
    • INDIAN OCEAN (April 14, 2014) -- Operators aboard ADF Ocean Shield move U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 into position for deployment, April 14. Using side scan sonar, the Bluefin will descend to a depth of between 4,000 and 4,500 meters, approximately 35 meters above the ocean floor. It will spend up to 16 hours at this depth collecting data, before potentially moving to other likely search areas. Joint Task Force 658 is currently supporting Operation Southern Indian Ocean, searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. (U.S. Navy video by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Blair/RELEASED)

      The underwater search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane will effectively be put on hold this week, and may not resume until August at the earliest.
    • Movie-makers say they have recruited leading Hollywood technicians to bring their experience to mid-air flight sequences.

      Movie-makers in Cannes have announced they're making a thriller based on the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.
    • The search for the missing Boeing 777 has gone on for eight weeks now. CNN's David Molko looks back at this difficult, emotional assignment.