The ongoing mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Where on earth — literally — did this plane go?

It’s a question being debated endlessly on cable news TV, radio talk shows, social media and among strangers in parking lots. As the saga of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 drags on, it’s been labeled as one of the greatest aviation mysteries of all time.

With so few known facts, conspiracy theorists are having a field day, and speculation is running rampant. Specialists from aviation to sleuthing have been pulled from the woodwork to weigh in on the debate, and we’ve all learned how to use the word “nefarious” in a sentence.

It’s almost impossible not to get pulled into the intrigue, the drama. We are reading a riveting novel in real-time — and it’s proving far better than any ripped-from-the-headlines crime drama. After all, who doesn’t love a good mystery?

Cable TV, for one, does. With wall-to-wall coverage on the missing plane for days, CNN pulled out its best graphics. Suddenly we’re inside the plane, looking at knobs and controls in the cockpit. We gaze on as maps rise up from the floor, and anchors draw swooping trajectories and large circles of “search areas” with electronic pens.

As is typical in its coverage, the network has named its segments on the airline: “Vanished: (X number of days).” Somehow — and I write this with a begrudging kind of admiration — the cable network has found a way to sensationalize one of the most sensational news stories in recent history.

And it has paid off.

The New York Times reported March 17 that, according to Nielson, CNN’s ratings have “soared” due to its coverage of the missing jetliner, “rising by almost 100 percent in prime time.”

“It’s an incredible mystery full of human drama with an international element,” said an unidentified executive in the story.

“Human drama” is the key phrase. Key for TV ratings and round-the-clock coverage, yes, but also key for reminding us, as consumers and as Catholics, of the 239 human lives that were aboard Flight 370 when it disappeared.

How easy it is for us to get caught up in speculative theories and the latest data analysis and to forget to pray for their safety, their souls and their families, who wait, day after day, for any kind of concrete information or closure. We don’t have to go far to find the agonizing stories. A sleepless father who never turns off his cell phone. A girlfriend who refuses to unpack moving boxes. Husbands, wives, children, friends still waiting and — heartbreakingly — still hoping.

It’s taking a moment to stop and think of these lives, and the lives of their families, that can help us snap back into focus. Because the mystery of the missing plane isn’t a TV crime drama. And it’s not the latest Nelson DeMille novel. It’s a real tragedy with real lives at stake.

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