Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Mining Disaster

The reports late last night were of 12 miners rescued from a situation that seemed to have been hopeless.

Then NPR's "Morning Edition" informed me that 12 miners were dead, not alive, and a 13th in critical condition. The confusion was attributed to "miscommunication."

Which still sounds like a credible story. It was, and still is, blamed on "overheard cell phone calls." However, that doesn't explain this:

The Washington Post story by Ann Scott Tyson, which appeared on the front page, opened: "A dozen miners trapped 12,000 feet into a mountainside since early Monday were found alive Tuesday night just hours after rescuers found the body of a 13th man, who had died in an explosion in an adjacent coal mine that was sealed off in early December."

Later in the story, she even added this explanation: "The miners had apparently done what they had been taught to do: barricaded themselves in a pocket with breathable air and awaited rescue."

The New York Times story on the Web by James Dao was also headlined with no doubt raised: "12 Miners Found Alive 41 Hours After Explosion." The story, which also ran in print on Page One, pulled back a bit from reporting the news as proven fact: "Forty-one hours after an explosion trapped 13 men in a West Virginia coal mine here, family members and a state official said 12 of the miners had been found alive Tuesday night.

"Joe Thornton, deputy secretary for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said the rescued miners were being examined at the mine shortly before midnight and would soon be taken to nearby hospitals. Mr. Thornton said he did not know details of their medical condition." It then reported family members calling it a miracle.
Just where did this detailed information that was being reported, come from?

Or this:

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!'"

It took three hours for the coal company to correct the reports. It is unclear why the media carried the news without proper sourcing. Some reports claim the early reports spread via cell phones and when loved ones started celebrating most in the media simply joined in.
And here were the AP headlines:

Families Say 12 W.Va. Miners Found Alive (11:59 PM)

12 Trapped W.Va. Miners Found Alive (12:34 AM)

Singing Erupts After Miners Found Alive (2:49 AM)

Families Say 11 of 12 W.Va. Miners Dead (3:06 AM)

Miners Reported Alive After Blast Are Dead (4:08 AM)

12 Confirmed Dead in W.Va. Mine Blast (5:26 AM)

Feds Vow Full Probe of W.Va. Mine Blast (6:58 AM)

Jubiliation [sic] Turns to Anger, Outrage (7:20 AM)

Why was any competent news service going with reports from the families? Why were they not acting as the professional skeptics they are expected to be, and confirming this information with credible officials before rushing to report good news that was so horribly false?

What responsibility do news services have to be accurate, not just immediate?

Clearly, the families have good reason to be outraged. Public officials did not cover themselves with glory, mining officials didn't do their job. "A coal company spokesman later explained, 'Let's put this in perspective. Who do I tell not to celebrate? I didn't know if there were 12 or 1 [who were alive].' " I think the proper perspective is: who do you tell to turn their celebration into mourning?

The responsible call was to dampen all expectations of a "miracle" until that "miracle" was confirmed. Everyone responsible for telling this story to the public, and the families, failed miserably.


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