On Saturday, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash-landed in San Francisco, bursting into flames on impact. Two teenage girls from China were killed, and more than 180 people were injured. The Boeing 777 flight, originating at the Incheon International Airport outside Seoul, was carrying 16 crew members and 291 passengers.
Not among those passengers was Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who posted a Facebook update Saturday explaining that she had initially been booked on the doomed Asiana Airlines flight, but changed her plans. Unsurprisingly, Sandberg’s story (or nonstory) quickly made headlines, and her role in the coverage of the tragedy was subsequently ridiculed on Twitter and on Facebook itself.
Was Sandberg wrong to post her Facebook status update at all? As some on Twitter and elsewhere have pointed out, Sandberg may have simply chosen the most efficient medium to communicate that she was safe to those who may have believed her to be on the flight. But not everyone is convinced her intentions were innocent. Valleywag blogger Sam Biddle called her status update “the epitome of crassness,” pointing out that Sandberg has been on an overseas publicity tour for her popular book “Lean In.”
If Biddle’s suspicion that Sandberg inserted herself into the news cycle for the purposes of getting more attention for her book is correct, and I sincerely hope it is not, then her decision is shameful. Even if there were no commercial motivations, Sandberg should have recognized that her high-profile status update -- she has 1.2 million Facebook followers -- had the potential to distract from the coverage of the real tragedy, and should have changed the settings on her update so that it could be seen only by those she knows personally. Still, she didn’t send out a press release, while numerous media outlets, beginning apparently with Mashable, made it into a news story. But is it fair to blame the media? Any reporter or editor working for a digital news property would immediately identify Sandberg’s update as a newsworthy item: To take the ethical high road and ignore it would be a bad business decision, assuming an ethical high road was even considered. Like it or not, this is the world we live in: The great majority of newspapers and websites cannot pass up an opportunity for the kind of “quick hit” readership that a story like Sandberg’s near-miss guarantees. Like it or not, these are the kinds of stories that people are inclined to read, even if they criticize and resent them later.
The backlash to Sandberg’s inappropriate place in the crash story is very appropriate. This story should not be about her or anyone who wasn’t directly affected by the tragedy. Yet, this kind of narrative hijacking is nothing new, although it often appears on a smaller platform: The “It Could Have Been Me” story has become a familiar trope after a newsworthy tragedy -- whether it’s an accident, a shooting, a terrorist attack or a natural disaster. Most of us have witnessed someone, or multiple people, in our social networks reflecting on a near-miss or not-so-near miss that spared them or someone they love from becoming victims. While such reflections are sometimes received as distasteful, it’s human nature to want to connect somehow to an unthinkable tragedy. But perhaps Sandberg’s story should serve as a reminder to all of us to think before we post so cavalierly about our good fortunes when others were not so lucky.
Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, stories began to emerge of those who survived by chance, who in ordinary circumstances would have been victims. Maybe I was less cynical 12 years ago, but I don’t recall those stories being at all offensive at the time. Tales of 9/11 near-misses were all couched in a terrible, palpable survivor’s guilt, perhaps best emblemized by Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick’s tearful television interviews. Cantor Fitzgerald, a global financial-services firm, occupied the 101st through the 105th floors of One World Trade Center: All 658 employees of the firm who were in the office that morning died. Lutnick’s son started kindergarten that Tuesday, and Lutnick had chosen to accompany him to school on his first day. He was in his son’s classroom when he learned of the attack, which claimed his brother’s life. Lutnick’s survival story was the highest-profile, but there were dozens, maybe hundreds more: People who were late to work or missed a flight or, in at least one case recounted by CNN, stepped outside for a cigarette break just before a plane crashed into the building. As Facebook and Twitter didn’t yet exist, we heard about these stories on the news or in private conversations, which may have lent them an air of somber legitimacy that is harder to come by in the age of the 140-character tweet or the self-indulgent Facebook status update.
After learning of the Boston Marathon bombing, the first thing I did (being a Massachusetts native) was reach out to friends and family members who were likely to have been running or watching the race. The next thing I did was scan Facebook for updates from people who may have been in harm’s way. In this sense, social media were very useful resources, but before long I began to see status updates, tweets and stories from people who were not affected at all, who were nowhere near the bombing, but who “could have been” there: Some of these updates were from acquaintances, others -- particularly on Twitter -- were from strangers. An author whose work I respect wrote a long commentary about how he normally watches the Boston Marathon from the finish line, but decided against it this year. Maybe it was unfair of me to be annoyed by these people, most of whom likely had good intentions, and were working out legitimate feelings about luck and the fragility of life in the face of what so often feels like increasing danger in the unlikeliest places. But I couldn’t help but think about how people who truly were affected by the bombing would have felt to read about those who could have lost a limb or worse, a loved one, but who did not.
There is nothing inherently wrong with recognizing how easy it is for any of us to be touched by a sudden, unexpected tragedy. But when others are impacted, maybe it’s better to recognize the could-have-been a little less publicly, as many of us wish Sandberg had. Whether you are a public figure or a regular person, it’s never a bad idea to be mindful of your audience, and sensitive to the possibility that our self-indulgence could hurt or offend someone else. Instead of inserting ourselves into narratives where we don’t belong, we should be quietly grateful when a tragedy has nothing to do with us, and think instead about those people who wish they were in our shoes.