Former journalist, communications specialist and current LSE MSc student Behailu Shiferaw Mihirete looks at the media coverage of the recent Ethiopian Airlines’ plane crash. 

On Sunday, 10 March 2019, Ethiopian Airlines’ Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed on a regular flight bound to Nairobi only six minutes after taking off. All 157 people aboard Flight ET302 died in the accident.

World news agencies jumped on the news, and rightly so. The way they covered it, however, was symptomatic of the still-skewed perception the world holds about everything African and the countries within it.

“Jet Crash in Africa Kills 157″ read the front page article of the March 11 issue of Wall Street Journal. “Lion Air Suspends Delivery of Boeing Max Jets After Africa Crash” read a Bloomberg report. Imagine a headline for the US Airways Flight 1549’s crash on the Hudson River, New York, reading “A North American crash” or “Pilot lands plane safely on North American River”.

Both WSJ and Bloomberg headlines make two consequential mistakes, especially for those who have no time to read beyond the headlines – first, it reports Africa (a continent with 55 countries) as a country or even a particular place, a view still widely held by some people out there. The second problem is that it broad-brushes dozens of other airlines operating from across the continent and flying over the continent as “unsafe”.

What prompted me to write this blog is the sad irony that Professor Pius Adesanmi, the author of the book You’re Not A Country, Africa: A Personal History of the African Present, and Director of The Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, was among those who died in the fateful crash the two leading news agencies labelled an “Africa Crash”.

Jumping to conclusions

That was not all. Journalists also jumped to conclusions about the cause of the incident, immediately implicating the airline. Ethiopian airlines has “a poor safety record historically” argued TRT World’s news anchor Maria Ramos while interviewing aviation analyst Alex Macheras on-air about the incident. Macheras immediately corrected her saying, “It doesn’t have a poor safety record. Ethiopian Airlines is an extremely safe airline. It’s one of the largest in Africa, and they operate very safely and very securely. They are one of the most trusted airlines in Africa. If you are referencing to what happened in 1996, that was a very rare and extremely unusual circumstance that was over 20 years ago, but since then the airline is extremely trusted. It’s in line with all safety standards.”

But Ramos did not relent. She argued on, “But there is a history of hijackings with the airline, is there not?”. Note that she used the plural for hijackings even if there was only one hijacking from 23 years ago. He corrected her on that, too. “There was a sole hijacking on Ethiopian airlines, but that does no way put into the spotlight that this airline is somehow unsafe. This airline is a very safe airline. They suffered very famously a hijacking in 1996, but that was over 20 years ago, and that was in no way in relation to the aircraft’s safety.”

The news anchor’s rushing to historicize the single incident into a narrative of a poor safety record is highly unprofessional. If there is anything historical to highlight about Ethiopian airlines, it’s the fact that it’s one of oldest, biggest, widest-reaching airlines in Africa and one of the most profitable around the world. Ethiopian Airlines has won Best Airlines in Africa Award for the seventh year in a row in 2018. It’s also one of the 20 world-leading airlines that are full members of the Star Alliance, one of the world’s largest global airline alliances, along with world top two airlines – Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand as well as Lufthansa and Swiss Air. But even that stellar record is reported in the past tense after the crash by the Financial Times, which tweeted “Ethiopian Airlines was ‘Africa’s best carrier’ before crash”.

All of the negative reports would perhaps be justified had the reporters had any idea as to what caused the crash. The problem is they didn’t. No one does yet. Some of the reports, including TRT World’s were broadcast or published even before the black box was found. The black box was sent to France only on March 14. The examination is expected to start today (March 15). The media simply assumed that the “African” airline had to have made a safety mistake or the crash must be due to inexperience, drawing attention to the young co-pilot instead of the pilot who had 8,000 hours of flight experience under his belt. “’You basically put a student pilot in there’: The co-pilot of crashed Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 had just 200 hours of flight experience trained pilot” read a Business Insider report.

Digging deeper

The other airlines and aviation experts knew better. Politico later reported, citing US Federal reports, that, in the US alone, “pilots complained at least 5 times in recent months about problems controlling their Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets during critical moments of flight”. The aircraft that crashed in Ethiopia was Boeing 737 Max 8, which is exactly the same as the one that crashed in Indonesia last October killing 189 people. Just like the Ethiopian one which crashed only six minutes after takeoff, the Lion Air also went out of contact only 13 minutes into the air. In both instances, pilots had requested to return right after taking off, but neither made it back to the airport.

Never in the history of aviation had such similar incidents involving identical aircraft happened. “It’s almost unheard of,” John Cox, a senior crash investigator and former airline pilot, told CNBC. Within a few days, almost all countries in the world grounded their similar aircrafts citing similarities between the two incidents before Boeing itself conceded that it was necessary to ground “entire global fleet of MAX 737 8s and 9s”. That’s what some of the above-mentioned media chose to overlook.

From early reports (now deleted or edited) omitting African victims from the list to presenting Africa as a country, the reports show us that we have a long way to go in our understanding of Africa, its countries and its peoples.

In a video he produced as a brief introduction to The Institute of African Studies that he led at the Carleton University, Ottawa, Professor Adesanmi said, “we are committed and dedicated to meeting the African continent at the level of agency and not victimhood, so ours is a positive vision in terms of generating knowledge about the continent.” It is unfortunate and exceptionally ironic that his own death was reported with the same ignorance that had inspired his works.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of Polis, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science