Journalism

The Miner Story: What Went Wrong?

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Families of thirteen miners in West Virginia are still grieving the loss of their loved ones, even as headlines on the morning papers exclaim that twelve of those trapped by an explosion had been rescued.

It’s not at all surprising that some people in the blogosphere have lost all concept of the human loss in this story in order to engage in the typical media-bashing. One important part of it is fully deserved. But let’s separate the fun of criticizing the media from the reality of what was happening at the scene for a minute.

Shortly before midnight, someone came running into the Sago Baptist Church where hopeful family members had gathered to wait for word. That someone — family members still aren’t sure who it was but some have suggested that it might have been an employee of either the mining company or the governor’s office — told them that the 12 miners had been found alive. The media was not in the church at the time, but instead was gathered outside, waiting for word themselves.

Suddenly, family members came rushing out in a frenzy of excitement and joy. The church bells began ringing. Family members were only too delighted to tell the reporters on the scene that they had gotten word that the miners had been rescued and were all right.

Let’s stop there for a second.

You’re a reporter on the scene. You’re in the middle of that scene. Like those viewers at home who were tuned to 24-hour news services in the middle of the night waiting for what they hoped would be good news, you’re caught up in the moment. You’re approached and surrounded by family members, teary-eyed, rejoicing, happy, talking about the miracle that had apparently happened — only they weren’t using the word apparently — and you’re on the air.

What are you going to do? Pretend that no news has come in because you haven’t gotten “official” word, or report what is happening at that moment? Move across town until you’re out of range of the church bells so you don’t have to explain why they’re ringing in the middle of the night, or pull over one of the family members who is suddenly only too happy to be interviewed about the good news they’ve just received?

If you’re a reporter who values your job, you’re going to report what’s happening all around you. Do you (and your colleagues) make sure you’re getting in touch with the mining company for that all-important “official” verification? Damn right! But when the celebration is literally spilling into the streets around you, you report what’s happening! To do so is not automatically “getting it wrong:” you are a witness to the events as they are unfolding in front of you and your camera. To report those events as they happen is to do your job.

You should say up front — and I’m sure at least some of the reporters and anchors did say it — that these are unconfirmed reports. But “unconfirmed reports,” unfortunately, is one of those phrases that are used in the media for important reasons yet also is ignored by many viewers.

A reporter in the field must, while searching for the truth and the confirmation of what is proported to be the truth, also rely on common sense: the families are going to get such word before the press does. When the families come to you with the news, even if you don’t have the official word from the rescuers who were in the mine, what would you do?

Before you answer, it gets worse.

Then there’s the problem of the “official word.” Well, I was at my local gym on a treadmill watching ABC News’s Nightline program. I could not hear the program, but I was reading along with the closed captioning. West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, who had spoken earlier in the day about believing in miracles and hoping for another one, himself announced that the twelve miners had, in fact, been rescued, according to this story by ABC News. From my treadmill, I saw a shot of Manchin riding by cameras in a black SUV talking about a miracle having happened.

(Later in the morning, after the revelation had been made, a reporter caught Manchin sitting in the passenger seat of that same SUV looking shell-shocked. She asked him how this miscommunication could have happened. His answer: “I wish I knew.”)

Put yourself back on that scene. You’ve gotten the word from the families that they’ve been told their loved ones are alive. Then the governor says it’s true.

Common sense would dictate that the family would be notified first. Common sense would also dictate that the governor would have more reliable information since he would have access to the rescue command center. For this story, common sense betrayed the reporters who were looking for confirmation.

What are you going to do now? How much more “official” word do you need than the governor telling you that miners have been rescued?

In fairness, the governor was duped along with the rest of us. According to the same ABC News article, here’s what apparently happened to cause the confusion:

“At 11:45 p.m., the mine rescue command center received a report that 12 miners were found alive, he said. Jubilant rescue workers and mine employees made cell phone calls, spreading the news to family members. ‘I don’t think anyone had a clue how much damage was about to be created,’ [Ben Hatfield, chief executive officer for the mine’s owner International Coal Group Inc.] said.

“When the rescue crew emerged from the mine — and was no longer impeded by the breathing apparatus — it became clear that only one miner had survived and was taken to a local hospital. Still clinging to hope that this report was wrong, Hatfield said, four additional rescue teams were sent to confirm the deaths or provide medical care to survivors.”

So from the time the governor told the gathered reprorters that the miners had been rescued, shortly after 11:45pm, based on inaccurate, incomplete information, it took three hours before the mining company confirmed the deaths. There were apparently no messages sent in the meantime that all twelve might not be alive, or even that their condition had not yet been confirmed. There was, for three hours, nothing to indicate that the story of the rescue — which everyone on the scene, reporters included, had hoped was accurate — wasn’t.

Mining company officials have stated that they didn’t want to release any information until they knew for sure exactly how many miners had survived. It’s unclear how soon they knew that the families were incorrectly informed that all twelve were safe, but they acknowledge that “in the process of being cautious,” they allowed the relatives’ celebrations to go on longer than they should have.

Where the news media made its primary mistake was in dropping the atttribution of the rescue reports. In other words, when the story changed from this:

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin says the twelve miners have been rescued.

…or this:

Families of trapped miners are being told their loved ones have been rescued safetly.

…to this:

Twelve miners have been rescued.

…the media had made a leap of faith based upon their trust of the governor’s own information, changing what it was reporting from what the governor said to what must be true.

Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have been so unreasonable to believe that the governor would have gotten accurate and “official” reports. But this was far from normal circumstance. By removing that “cover-your-butt” phrase that indicates who said it, the media itself ended up with the egg on its face. After all, for everyone who’s trying to suggest that the media was so insensitive by running with unconfirmed information, I haven’t seen anyone make the same claim of the governor, who made the same error.

But let’s be clear about two things here.

First, the media didn’t start the false alarm caused by the false reports. The media was given the false reports after the families had already received them. No doubt, a bystander near the rescue command center had the best of intentions when he or she overheard part of a conversation about the rescue crews having reached the twelve trapped miners, assumed that the twelve were alive, then rushed to get this news to the desperate family members. I don’t think anyone who would have done such a thing would have intended to pull such a cruel joke on families; if someone really had intended to do so, they were the one who needed to be trapped in a mine.

The media did screw up in not waiting to confirm the story from the officials at the rescue scene, and this morning’s headlines on newspapers that found out too late that those early reports were wrong surely rubbed salt in the loved ones’ wounds. But the media certainly didn’t fabricate the jubilation that was happening around them based on a stranger’s false report to families.

If you’re going to crucify the media, your accusations should be as accurate as you expect their reporting to be.

I’m not trying to defend what they did: there’s no question that they screwed up! I’m just trying to get you to think about why it went wrong, which is at least as important as what went wrong if anyone is to try to prevent this from happening again. If you are really able put yourself in a reporter’s place in the heat of that most difficult moment — even if you’re sure you wouldn’t have done things the way others did — I suspect that you can at least understand how the error could have happened.

That’s the first point.

Second, and most importantly, those who are only addressing how the media “screwed up” are losing sight of something much more important: thirteen people died.

Among them was a third-generation miner who was looking forward to an upcoming retirement so that he could spend time with his wife and children; a miner with 35 years of experience who, knowing the risks involved, refused to allow his son to follow in his footsteps; and a man only 28 years old who’d been at mining less than three years but took on the dangerous work so that he could be at home at night with his three young daughters so that his wife could pursue a degree in health care administration.

Each of the thirteen miners have their own story, and you can find out about some of them at this report on MSNBC.

I hope those who are only interested in bashing the media in this tragedy will consider spending at least a little time in praying for the victims’ families. I think they’re a little more worthy of your attention.

6 Comments

  1. I believe the problem stems from a shift in reporting from facts and more towards information. None of the big outlets advertise themselves as fact-based sources, instead focusing on being the fastest or giving the most information. If I want information, I’ll watch Entertainment Tonight. I expect quality reporting from a news organization, including checking facts and confirming sources PRIOR to making a peep about a certain story. Anything else is just rumor-mongering.

  2. People want to believe in hope, even if it’s “False”. The families jumped on the first positive thing that was heard without verification. Granted, so did the media. If anyone is to blame, let’s go to the corporation who have received over 2dozen saftey citations in the last few years. Perhaps their deaths could have been avoided all together. De 🙁

  3. I think you gave an excellent commentary here. I do not blame the media at all. I am sure they were relieved when they heard good news and were eager to report it. I remember the show Lou Grant and how interesting it was. I guess this does prove that you need to confirm everything but then hindsight is always 20/20.

  4. Thank you for helping me look at this in a different way, and from a different angle. This isn’t the first time you’ve done that.

  5. I’m not bashing the media, Patrick. Lots of things weren’t handled well, but that can happen in any circumstance in this day and age with us being able to be there virtually 24-hours a day with news coverage. I wrote a little piece in my journal about people trusting in man rather than trusting in the Lord. They took the word of man and praised God for the 12 surviving only to curse God later when the 12 were dead. That bothered me more than the inaccurate reports getting out.

    excellent thoughts, Patrick.

    betty

  6. I agree with you, Patrick. First and foremost, this was a terrible loss of twelve lives; that should be first on this agenda. There will be time later to re-examine exactly what happened to cause this sad miscommunication.

    The media are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Had one outlet held the story of the “miracle,” awaiting a verification, and it had turned out to be true, that outlet would have been condemned for laziness and/or dragging its feet. The media did not create the story; they reported what they knew.

    You’re right that they should have attributed the information, if, for no other reason, than to cover their own behinds, but the media are people. And people were hoping for that happy ending. It is quite likely that many reporters were swept up, as were members of the families and community, in the joy of the rescue. It’s not right to invest emotionally in the story you’re reporting, but it is human. And I’d rather have humanity than the total lack of it.

    No one, IMO, intentionally meant to deceive anybody. And as much as my heart breaks for the families of these men, I refuse to point fingers of blame. That is, until and unless something is proven that the accident itself could have been prevented. Or until I, myself, am so perfect that I have the right to throw stones.

Comments are closed.

Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.