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With terror-obsessed corporate airwaves, it falls to social media to share human stories of EgyptAir victims

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I was glued to the screen, both TV and my phone, for the latest updates on EgyptAir flight MS804, that disappeared over the Mediterranean on route from Paris to Cairo on May 19. My Facebook feed beat any global news outlet in the information I was constantly getting about the victims on board. Meanwhile, international news outlets kept repeating the same information about the flight that vanished off the radar and asking whether terrorism was the cause.

The human story of the victims, their names, pictures, funeral prayers and loved ones they leave behind was missed. Some limited stories and pictures are emerging in international and Canadian media, a day late. The fears over the cause overshadowed the lives of the people on board.

Egypt can be challenging for media outlets to cover since information doesn't usually come out through the official route. At least two phone snap shots of the EgyptAir's passengers list were widely circulating on social media soon after news of the flight's disappearance broke, but the list wasn't issued from an official source.

Still, there were several confirmations of names and pictures of passengers and crew on board. Procter and Gamble confirmed that 40 year-old Ahmed Helal, one of its managers in France, was on board promptly after news of the crash. Condolence tweets from French politicians to Helal's family soon followed.

 

 

Egyptian official newspaper Al-Ahram had pictures and video of the flight crew. Yet the victims' images didn't appear on a wide scale on the international level.

Egyptians became pros at sharing information and pictures on social media ever since the 2011 revolution. Everyday Egyptians are the news producers as a result of the lack of proper local news channels and the absences of official sources. The volume of pictures, videos and condolensces shared by families and friends of the victims were hard to keep up with. Yet I haven't seen them outside of my Facebook feed.

Social media isn't an official source and the credibility of the information should be questioned and confirmed before going to air. But as we all know there are ways for journalists to reach out to the social media users and double and triple source the information. After all, we see Twitter screenshots and Facebook posts routinely in our Western news coverage.

Western media may have been waiting for the airlines to officially notify the families of the victims, which is standard media procedure. However, some of the family members were taking to social media to mourn their loved ones, so journalists wouldn't be breaking the sad news. The Facebook page of Helal, one of the earliest confirmed victim's, filled up with posts from friends and family.

Mourning is a more public affair in Egyptian culture and funeral prayers are held promptly to honour lost ones. Some for sure, including Egyptian Canadian Marwa Hamdy's family, have asked for privacy, according to a close friend I spoke with.

 

 

I was reading stories on my Facebook like Ghassan Abou Laban's who was onboard with his wife Reem and his parents, leaving behind two young daughters, including a five-year old. Abou Laban's cousin, a popular Egyptian film director shared a Facebook post with the information about the mosque where what's called "absentee funeral" in Islam will be held after Friday prayers.

France is a common destination for Egyptians seeking cancer treatment. A 30 year-old mother was returning on the flight after treatment along with her husband, according to a Facebook post published in a story by Youm7, an Egyptian online publication. She leaves behind three kids.

I didn't watch or hear emotional soundbites from victims' families and friends on Western news networks. Instead I was treated to continuous experts' speculations about whether a bomb or cockpit sabotage was the reason for the crash.

The possibility of terrorism that resonates with audiences' fears about personal safety was deemed more newsworthy than the stories of the passengers. If it turns out to be a terrorist attack, the majority of the victims would be from Egyptian and Arab nationalities or heritage. They are often the faceless, nameless victims of terrorism.

It's hard to feel empathy for a number -- 66 -- the number of people on board. But they too, just like Western victims of terrorism, had families who are struggling to come to terms with why their loved ones were taken away.

Dalia Thamin worked as a radio and TV producer in Egypt and Canada for 13 years. Thamin is currently a free-lance writer and a graduate student, Cultural Studies, at Queen's University researching the dialectic relation between social media and news coverage.

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