The Reporting of Rumors

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 emotion.

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, horribly wrong.

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 thereafter.

Jim Fair writes

 from Chicago.