AP Says It Had ‘Credible Sources’ for False Mine Rescue Stories–Blames ‘Mine Company Offiicials’

By: E&P Staff and the Associated Press

The Associated Press, which carried to newspapers around the world false reports on trapped miners being rescued in West Virginia late Tuesday night, said in a statement this afternoon that it had reported “accurately” based on information “provided by credible sources–family members and the governor.”

The statement by Mike Silverman, the news agency’s managing editor, read: “AP was reporting accurately the information that we were provided by credible sources — family members and the governor. Clearly, as time passed and there was no firsthand evidence the miners were alive, the best information would have come from mine company officials, but they chose not to talk.”

AP also provided this wrap-up on media coverage, published below.


(AP) “12 Alive.” “MIRACLE IN THE MINE.” “They’re Alive!”
Those were just a few of the newspaper headlines that greeted Americans on their doorsteps Wednesday morning. Joyful, dramatic — and of course, flat-out wrong.

As the painful truth emerged that all but one of the West Virginia miners was dead, news organizations were forced to ask themselves: Had they gone too far in reporting the original, much happier ending?

The answer, like the story itself, is murky.

Undoubtedly, the timing was bad and the circumstances challenging. It was just before midnight Eastern time when news, or what seemed to be news, came from family members that the remaining 12 miners had been found alive. (One body had been found earlier.) The governor appeared to confirm it, saying: “They told us they have 12 alive.”

On cable news channels, late-night viewers saw euphoria erupt in the black West Virginia night. Family members whooped. Anchors such as Anderson Cooper on CNN and Geraldo Rivera on the Fox News Channel were swept up in the joyful scene. Newspapers across the country rushed to update their front pages.

Three hours later came the terrible truth: Only one man had survived, the mining company said. It was 3 a.m., too late for many papers to change their initial front pages.

Not since premature reports of George Bush’s election victory in 2000 had so many papers announced the wrong news. The reversal also called to mind the Munich Olympics story in 1972, when the Israeli hostages were initially reported safe, when in fact all had been killed.

Were the media at fault in the miners story?

“I’m not sure there’s much of an issue here,” said Martin Baron, editor of The Boston Globe.

His editors worked throught the night, adjusting the story as more information came in. One edition had the headline: “Twelve Miners Reportedly Found Alive.” A later one went stronger on that angle, Baron said, and the final edition was “Jubilation, Then Horror” — a version that reached 145,000 of the paper’s 400,000-plus readers.

Baron noted that reports the miners were safe had come from a number of credible, named sources, including family members and Gov. Joe Manchin.

“At some point you have to publish,” Baron said. “You can’t sit there waiting for every last piece of information, because the paper would then go out at noon, and people would wonder why they didn’t get their paper.”

The word “reportedly” in the Globe headline was commendable, said Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school based in St. Petersburg, Fla. Many headlines, he noted, went too far because they allowed “no wiggle room.”

An example was a Newsday headline that took up most of the page. “Miracle in the Mine,” it said in large white letters emblazoned against a black background. The Rocky Mountain News said simply: “They’re Alive!” The New York Daily News reported: “ALIVE! Miracle in West Virginia.”

The error, said Tompkins, was that “we took what appeared to be good information … and added a level of certainty that it did not warrant.” Besides the headlines that went too far, many lead paragraphs dropped any attribution for news that the miners were safe.

The Associated Press cited family members in its initial dispatch, at 11:52 p.m., saying the miners were alive. Five versions later, at 12:25 a.m., the story added the quote from Manchin — “They told us they have 12 alive” — and dropped attribution for the miners’ rescue to the third paragraph.

“AP was reporting accurately the information that we were provided by credible sources — family members and the governor,” said Mike Silverman, the news agency’s managing editor. “Clearly, as time passed and there was no firsthand evidence the miners were alive, the best information would have come from mine company officials, but they chose not to talk.”

Some newspapers said they would run stories Thursday explaining how the story was handled. The [Toledo] Blade and the [Cleveland] Plain Dealer both planned columns after receiving e-mails and phone calls from angry and confused readers.

“There was nothing we could do,” said Kurt Franck, the Blade’s managing editor. “It was unfortunate timing.”

Naturally, papers further west had better luck because of the time difference. Sherry Devlin, editor of the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Mont., said the newspaper was about halfway through its run at 1 a.m. (MST) when the AP bulletin moved that only one of the miners had survived. The newspaper was able to remake the front page for later editions.

Devlin said the Missoulian’s coverage Thursday would include reports on how the erroneous information was spread.

Melanie Sill, executive editor of The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., wrote an “editor’s blog” to readers Wednesday explaining her paper’s coverage. She also planned an editor’s note expressing regret for that erroneous headline: “Miracles Happen in West Virginia.”

Her message, she said, was that “there’s a difference between journalistic failure and getting bad information — which I call an honest mistake.”

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