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BY Jim Fair
By the time you read this, the tragic deaths of a dozen miners
in West Virginia will be a footnote in the nation’s news media.
After all, these men were nobody special to the media —
just a heart-rending story to capture the attention of readers and viewers
during an otherwise slow news cycle. For the news media, the story was the
dramatic search for survivors, the anguish of the family members, the fear and
For a brief moment, the media also reported the hope and
the miracle. They reported that the miners had survived. But, of course, they
were terribly, horribly wrong. And that is another reason this story soon will
become a footnote; the media don’t like to keep reporting stories they get terribly,
It would be easy to just shrug this off as simple
miscommunication or honest human error. Some commentators have reminded us that
this isn’t the first time the media goofed — remember the Chicago Tribune’s “Dewey Beats Truman” headline?
The errant story of the miners is a bit more painful. And
it is a link in a growing chain of rumor reporting that is destroying the
reputation of the major media.
Back in the mists of time when I attended journalism
school, there was a great deal of attention devoted to accuracy, fact-checking
and confirmation of sources. And when you made a mistake, you corrected it.
In this instance, the media (predictably) have blamed
everyone but themselves for the miscommunication. They blame the families of
the miners, the governor’s office, the command center, the coal-company
officials and fuzzy cell phones. (It probably is only a matter of time before
they blame President Bush.)
There is plenty of blame to go around, of course. There
usually is in situations like this. Obviously, something went terribly wrong
and there was an explosion in the mine. There will be a long investigation and
we eventually may know what happened — or at least the experts’ best guess.
The mining company should have created a clearer line of
communication and controlled the flow of information — not to put a spin on
things but to ensure accuracy. This event is clear evidence of just how
devastatingly painful inaccuracy can be.
But this doesn’t get the media off the hook. Rather than
getting official company and emergency-responder confirmation of what was
happening, the media reported rumor. And this isn’t the first time.
During the last presidential election, some reporters
monitoring exit polls started reporting that John Kerry had won the election.
Of course, the resident of the White House is determined by actual votes, not
polls. The reporters were reporting rumor and they were wrong.
During Hurricane Katrina, reporters plopped themselves
around the devastated area and reported what people told them. So, we had
reports of thousands trapped in attics, hundreds murdered or raped in the
Superdome, tens of thousands dead and the water turned into a toxic pool that
would kill people on contact. These were exaggerations and rumors — at best.
Back in those misty times when I studied journalism,
Woodward and Bernstein were hanging out with a source in a parking garage and
doing the reporting that would bring down a president. To those of us who were
still young and impressionable, what they did was noble, inspiring and, yes,
patriotic. (In retrospect, Watergate seems more like a two-bit cover-up of a
two-bit burglary — but that is another story.)
For we aspiring journalists of the time, the message was
that you couldn’t just report the “official” information released by the
government. You had to dig for the truth, cultivate sources and reveal the lies
of untrustworthy officials. After all, the Watergate scandal was not going to
be announced at a White House press conference.
This isn’t to suggest that Watergate taught us bad
lessons about how to practice journalism. But maybe it did encourage a trend to
discount the information from official channels and breed a willingness to
embrace what we hear on the street.
That is precisely what happened in the mine disaster.
Families of the lost miners were gathered in a church and got informal word (a
rumor) that the men were safe. The celebration started and breathless reporters
interviewed the happy and relieved families.
Maybe the reporters were tired. Maybe they just wanted to
believe the best. Maybe they wanted to be first to report the story. Maybe they
were simply incompetent.
They didn’t ask the simple questions every journalism
student learns to ask in such a situation: Who said they are safe? Where and
when did they say it? What were the circumstances? How do they know they are
safe? Why are they telling us now? What evidence do they have that they are
safe? Have you talked to them or seen them?
Reporters have a responsibility to ask these questions
before telling the world that someone is alive or dead.
As I mentioned earlier,
to the media these miners and the families were nobody special. They were
simply a good story to tell, an emotional story that created gripping headlines
and make for “good television.” The reporters have moved to another assignment.
In fact, these miners were sons, brothers, uncles,
fathers and friends. They were hard-working men and loving families. They
deserved to be more than an emotional crescendo in a news cycle, and a footnote
Jim Fair writes