It’s a regular morning on’s The Latest. I’m eating my now cold breakfast as I proofread a story about AirAsia’s stocks. Suddenly, another airline grabs my attention. An EgyptAir plane’s been hijacked! I’ll take it, I’ll take it, I ping my colleagues shrilly. I abandon my eggs and scramble to find our ominous “BREAKING NEWS” placeholder photo.

By now, possible terror attacks are old hat for us live-blogging regulars. They follow a predictably similar trajectory. You watch the first big announcement: Explosion! Shooting! Hijacking! You sift through confused initial responses. You find the Twitter feed from foreign correspondents in the country concerned. You zero in on the agencies that put out updates the fastest. You make a mental note of the ones you should probably avoid: “A Suicide Bomber Got On A Plane and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next”. Fifteen seconds to pull out the necessary backstory – Google “plane+terror+Egypt+Sinai”, done.

Minutes later, I’ve published my first draft: Strong headline, check. Functional intro, check. First few updates complete with emerging photos from Twitter, check. Quote from unnamed official that adds legitimacy to the threadbare story, check. Notify the social media team to put a tweet out immediately, check. Oh, I almost forgot. The customary “More details to follow…” note at the bottom. Check.

I send out a quick message to my team: I’m going to stay with this story, I have a feeling it’s going to blow up. Oops, I chastise myself for my unfortunate phrasing when the hijacker currently has explosives strapped to his body and there are 62 terrified hostages. Journalists are so insensitive sometimes.

As it unfolds...

It gets more messy. In the desperation to put the news out first and make the most sense of it even when it’s still rather senseless, we clutch at anything we can get our Ctrl+Cs on. Someone heard someone else say something about a terror group, tweeted a third person from a fourth country. Change headline, no, that’s too sensational, tweak and attribute, hurry. Phew! We beat The Guardian to it, high-five.

The hijacker has set everyone but the crew and five foreigners free. I trawl through Twitter some more. I check the watch. It’s been 40 minutes since the story has broken. And you know what that means? It’s reactionary-and-problematic-speculation time. The microblogging site has exploded with opinions.

Some are somewhat hopeful:

Oh no, not the Islamic State again. #PeacePlease

Then there’s the mildly-bigoted cynic:

Won’t these people ever stop? #IToldYouSo

And finally (we still don’t know who did it or why, mind you) there’s the outright facts-be-damned troll:

I wonder which religion he belongs to, hmmm? Obviously only the white passengers are hostages. #Who’sTheOppressorNow

I update the photograph, the agencies have some great shots of the aircraft. Meanwhile, I reflect on the narrative of this last Twitter user.

Reasonable strategy

If I were a crazed airplane hijacker – now there’s a sentence I never thought I would say – would I not be acutely aware that Muslim victims of terror attacks get disproportionately less coverage than say, non-Muslim, white Europeans? So doesn’t it make perfect sense for me to keep the foreigners hostage and thus stay in the headlines? Not because I hate them more, but the news loves people of colour less?

I update and update some more. Some hostages have been freed. And now a few others. Only a few of them are left on board, thank god. It’s been three hours. I think wistfully of my discarded omelette, but terrorism. Back at it. Government representatives are addressing a press conference, we’ll know now who did it at last.

“President Nicos Anastasiades said the hijacker seemed to have a personal motive and that the incident was not related to terrorism.” Wait, what?

“Local media are reporting that the hijacker wanted to contact his ex-wife who lives in Cyprus. It cannot be confirmed whether there were any explosives on the plane.”

“Officials with the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs said, ‘He’s not a terrorist, he’s an idiot. Terrorists are crazy but they aren’t stupid. This guy is.’” You’ve got to be joking.

The blog has slowed down now. I can even step away to put my lunch in the microwave. The final details only emerge later in the evening. The man is arrested and all the passengers are free, though shaken. It is still unclear why he did what he did, even the fanciful ex-wife story is doubtful now. What we know for sure is that it isn’t the Islamic State, or the Taliban, or Boko Haram or any other group our minds jumped to the moment we saw the word “hijack” and started typing away furiously.


It’s a terrifying state of affairs when terror attacks are so routine that we as journalists have a formula for how to go about covering them. It is also terrifying that the reactions to them are entirely predictable. Things haven’t changed since November’s Paris attacks. We reflected on the Eurocentrism of our sympathies when it came to Paris versus Beirut. Then when Brussels happened, we did the exact same thing even as Ankara and Iskandariyah battled tragedies of their own.

But the EgyptAir hijacking shook us out of our terror tedium. In some small way, it broke the pattern of our coverage and confused us, forced us to search for new leads and new analyses. It took an anticlimax to remind us that complacent is the worst thing we can be.

Hours before the plane was hijacked, a man named Larry Russell Dawson pulled out a gun at the Capitol Visitor Centre in Washington DC and “loudly stated to the Congress that he was a ‘prophet of God’”. Security forces were quick to catch him. They were even quicker to say, “We believe this is an act of a single person who has frequented the Capitol grounds before, and there is no reason to believe this is anything more than a criminal act.”

Granted, hijacking a plane full of people takes much more doing than brandishing a weapon. For the love of an ex-wife or otherwise, it’s still a pretty lousy thing to do. There’s no doubt the suspect should get the most appropriate punishment for fuelling panic at a tense time. But perhaps one good thing came out of the bizarre turn of events. It showed us that we assumed a little too quickly what the EgyptAir story was, that it was “more than a criminal act”. Maybe next time, and there probably will be a next time, a little restraint may not hurt.