Illustration of a plane accident
Illustration by Farraz Tandjoeng

The Consequences of Our Obsession With Reading About Plane Crashes and Other Tragedies

All this news coverage is taking its toll.

The tragic story of Lion Air Flight JT610 reached an emotional epilogue on Tuesday morning as the families of the deceased met with search and rescue officials to place flowers in the sea in remembrance. It will still be months before air crash investigators release the findings of the black box recorder and hopefully shed some light on what, exactly, happened here.

Or maybe they won't. A vital piece of the puzzle—the cockpit voice recorder—is still missing. Without it we may never know, 100 percent, what happened here.


But that won't stop the speculation. That's because, no matter where you live, people are obsessed with plane crashes. There's something about the mystery, the heartbreaking loss of life, and feeling that, if you were a passenger, there's literally nothing you can do to save your own life.

I can't help but think about the last part, the total lack of control, whenever I step foot on an airplane. I think about suicidal pilots, like Andreas Lubitz, who purposely crashed a plane full of 150 people into a mountain in the French Alps or about a series of incidents that could lead to tragedy, like the ones that caused a Surabaya-to-Singapore AirAsia flight to stall and plummet into the sea.

Where do all these dark fears come from? Air travel is still, statistically, one of the safest ways to get around out there. I know that I'm 3,000 times more likely to die in a motorbike accident. And 100 times more likely to die in a car. But no one thinks about statistics when they have to travel right after a plane goes down. And now, thanks to never-ending reruns of shows like National Geographic's Air Crash Investigation, we can think about plane crashes all year long too.

"Fear of flying is just a feeling," Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, told the Washington Post. "Feelings aren’t facts. Almost everyone who’s scared will say ‘my fear doesn’t actually measure up to the actual danger, but I can’t find a way out of it’."


That's also easy to say when you live in the US, where air crashes are rare. Here in Indonesia, where we have averaged at least two fatal accidents per-year for the last 17 years, it's a different story. Lion Air alone has had 15 incidents since 2002, including one crash that split a plane's fuselage in half. But even with that less than amazing safety record, Indonesian airlines have been declared "safe" by EU regulators.

So where does this fear of flying come from? A lot of it has to do with the media's obsessive coverage of plane accidents. But it's like the media is solely responsible for this obsession. It's hard to tell which came first, our hyper-focus on tragedy or the media's love of flooding your feed and television with tragic stories, but regardless of the answer, everyone is watching and reading. CNN's prime-time ratings jumped some 68 percent during their coverage of the MH370 crash. BBC reported a similar spike during coverage of plane crashes or natural disasters.

"They (obsessive viewers) are constantly looking for and exposed to news about accidents," explained Reza Indragiri, a psychologist, of the air crash media cycle. "They will watch it until they find complete clarity. There’s only one object, that is a plane crash, but it can be interpreted in so many ways."

Other times, viewers get a weird mix of voyeuristic pleasure and empathetic sadness when watching news coverage of tragic events, explained Eric Wilson, a psychology professor, in his book Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away.

"Fixating on disaster reportage can bring out the worst in us: getting a rush from the suffering of others, and the best: a feeling of empathy for those suffering as well as a deeper understanding of the meanings of suffering and death," Wilson explained to one of our colleagues in the US. "I also think that we probably get a feeling of relief when watching disaster coverage, relief that this terrible thing didn’t happen to us."

When I was younger, planes and the airport reminded me of my father. I grew up in the flight path of planes taking off from Bandung's Husein Sastranegara International Airport and the low rumble of a massive passenger jet taking flight used to be a regular part of my childhood. Back then, my dad would take me on his motorcycle to the airport's chainlink fence to watch the planes takeoff and land. It was a good memory of a man I don't have a lot of warm memories of.

Years later, after being repeatedly exposed to air crash coverage on the news, I became anxious about flights. I doubt I will ever get over it, but maybe it's time we all learn how to make tragedies less about us, and our vulture-like voyeurism, and more about trying to making sure they don't happen with such frequency.