By: Greg Mitchell
In one of the most disturbing and disgraceful media performances of its kind in recent years, TV news and many newspapers carried the tragically wrong news late Tuesday and early Wednesday that 12 of 13 trapped coal miners in West Virginia had been found alive and safe. Hours later they had to reverse course.
For hours, starting just before midnight, newspaper reporters and anchors such as MSNBC’s Rita Cosby interviewed euphoric loved ones and helped spread the news about the miracle rescue. Newspaper Web sites announced the happy news and many put it into print for Wednesday at deadline. “They’re Alive!” screamed the banner headline in the Indianapolis Star. The Boston Globe at least added a qualifier in its banner hed: “12 Miners Reportedly Found Alive.”
In many cases, the same papers stopped the presses later, after tens of thousands of copies were printed and distributed, to carry the correct report. USA Today, for example, printed an update under the headline: “Official: 1 Miner Survived.”
It was “Dewey Defeats Truman” all over again. Some editors blamed officials, including the governor, for misleading reporters. In reality, rescuers had only confirmed finding 12 miners–and were checking their vital signs. But what leaked out to anxious family members was that 12 were found alive. The coal company, it later admitted, knew that the early reports were false 20 minutes after they started circulating, but did not quickly correct them.
A coal company spokesman 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].”
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.” But 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.
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!'”
Today, AP carried a story explaining that Gov. Manchin “spoke to The Associated Press from his cell phone shortly after relatives said they had received word the miners were safe. ‘The rescue people have been talking to us. They told us they have 12 alive,’ Manchin said. He said later he went to the mine site to try to confirm the news when rescuers said there had been miscommunication and not all had survived.”
The Chicago Tribune, which had reported the rescue, later carried a new story on its site opening with, “Jubilation turned to anger early Wednesday when relatives of 12 coal miners believed alive in a West Virginia coal mine blast were told that 11 of their loved ones were dead. One survivor was in critical condition at an area hospital.”
It took nearly three hours for the coal company to correct the reports. It is unclear why the media carried the news without nailed-down sourcing. Some reports claim the early reports spread via cell phones and when loved ones, and the governor, started celebrating most in the media simply joined in.
“About the confusion, I can’t tell you of anything more heart- wrenching than I’ve ever gone through in my life. Nothing,” Gov. Manchin, who had helped spread the good news, said.
The sole survivor of the Sago, W.Va., disaster, identified by mining officials as 27-year-old Randal McCloy, was in the hospital in critical condition, a doctor said. When he arrived, he was unconscious but moaning, the hospital stated.
The governor later indicated he was uncertain about the news at first. When word of survivors began circulating through the church, he hadn’t heard it, he said.
Many editors, at big papers and small, rushed to admit, explain or defend their error, on their Web sites on Wednesday. Sherry Chisenhall, editor of the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, was on who accepted blame. “If you saw today’s printed edition of The Eagle, you saw a front page headline and story that are flat wrong,” she wrote. “I’ll explain why we (and newspapers across the country) went to press last night with the information we had at the time. But it won’t excuse the blunt truth that we violated a basic tenet of journalism today in our printed edition: Report what you know and how you know it.”
Scott Libin, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, wrote today, “This case reminds us of a lesson we learned, at least in part, from Hurricane Katrina: Even when plausibly reliably sources such as officials pass along information, journalists should press for key details….If we believe that when your mama says she loves you, you should check it out, surely what the mayor or police chief or governor says deserves at least some healthy skepticism and verification. I understand how emotion and adrenaline and deadlines affect performance. That does not excuse us from trying to do better.”
NOTE: An earlier version of this story observed that the Los Angeles Times carried the front page headline: “Suddenly There is Joy: 12 Miners Found Alive.” Indeed, copies with this headline were printed, but according to a Times spokesman, they were all halted before any were delivered and all copies sent out carried the correct, updated story and headline.