Thursday, January 05, 2006

Only One Survivor of Mine Explosion

It was horrible enough for the families and friends of the 13 trapped miners in West Virginia to find out that only one had survived, but to find out that 12 miners were dead when you had been told they were alive is the worst kind of torment I can imagine. It's got to be unspeakably painful.

The false news that 12 miners had survived happened because of a miscommunication in which a cell phone call from the rescuers to the command center was misunderstood. The rescuers had found the 12 men and were checking for vital signs, but the crowd in and outside the command center thought that meant the miners had survived. The miscommunication itself was understandable. What is less easy to understand is why the mine authorities waited several hours to correct the false information; and why the media published the "news" before it had been confirmed.

Editor & Publisher's Greg Mitchell wrote a scathing editorial about both print and broadcast journalists so carried away by the emotions of the moment that they reported 12 men had been found alive without getting corroborating details.

An Associated Press dispatch first carried the news at 11:52 pm: "Twelve miners caught in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive Tuesday night, more than 41 hours after the blast, family members said. Bells at a church where relatives had been gathering rang out as family members ran out screaming in jubilation." But many newspapers, and all of cable TV news, reported the rescue as fact, not merely based on family claims.

A later AP account by Allen Breed grew more, not less, certain: "Twelve miners caught in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive Tuesday night, sending family members streaming from the church where they had gathered during the nearly two-day ordeal. Joyous shouts rose of 'Praise the Lord!'"

Today, AP carried a story explaining that Gov. Manchin "spoke to The Associated Press from his cell phone shortly after relatives said they had received word the miners were safe. 'The rescue people have been talking to us. They told us they have 12 alive,' Manchin said. He said later he went to the mine site to try to confirm the news when rescuers said there had been miscommunication and not all had survived."

The Chicago Tribune, which had reported the rescue, later carried a new story on its site opening with, "Jubilation turned to anger early Wednesday when relatives of 12 coal miners believed alive in a West Virginia coal mine blast were told that 11 of their loved ones were dead. One survivor was in critical condition at an area hospital."

It took nearly three hours for the coal company to correct the reports. It is unclear why the media carried the news without nailed-down sourcing. Some reports claim the early reports spread via cell phones and when loved ones, and the governor, started celebrating most in the media simply joined in.
Many editors, at big papers and small, rushed to admit, explain or defend their error, on their Web sites on Wednesday. Sherry Chisenhall, editor of the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, was one who accepted blame. "If you saw today's printed edition of The Eagle, you saw a front page headline and story that are flat wrong," she wrote. "I'll explain why we (and newspapers across the country) went to press last night with the information we had at the time. But it won't excuse the blunt truth that we violated a basic tenet of journalism today in our printed edition: Report what you know and how you know it."

Scott Libin, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, wrote today,
"This case reminds us of a lesson we learned, at least in part, from Hurricane Katrina: Even when plausibly reliably sources such as officials pass along information, journalists should press for key details....If we believe that when your mama says she loves you, you should check it out, surely what the mayor or police chief or governor says deserves at least some healthy skepticism and verification. I understand how emotion and adrenaline and deadlines affect performance. That does not excuse us from trying to do better."

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