SPECIAL REPORT: Serious Questions on Sourcing in Mine ‘Rescue’ Story Remain

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By: Joe Strupp and Greg Mitchell

As newspapers conduct damage control after early Wednesday’s error, in which most wrongly reported that 12 trapped miners had been rescued in West Virginia, many editors are defending their mistake by saying they were misled by various sources, including the state’s governor. Yet, even after extensive follow-up coverage today, serious questions about the sourcing, and its use, remain.

“AP was reporting accurately the information that we were provided by credible sources — family members and the governor,” AP managing editor Mike Silverman has said. “The mistake was not ours, it was the authorities at the scene,” Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post, told E&P Wednesday.

But what information actually came out during those fateful three hours, starting late Tuesday? Did reporters misinterpret what they heard or fail to raise doubts about credibility? What was most surprising in the many follow-up stories today was how few fresh details were added about sourcing — including any mention of a single new source not already identified. Despite repeated attempts by E&P to reach reporters at the scene, none have yet responded.



Here we will provide the first step-by-step chronology from a strictly journalistic perspective. So what do we know, or think we know?

***

The first AP report came through just before midnight, stating in its lead, “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.” The short dispatch did not quote family members by name, saying only that “relatives were yelling ‘they’re alive!'”

That initial story clearly stated that neither the governor nor the International Coal Group Inc., which operates the mine, had confirmed the news.

Between 12:02 a.m. and 12:18 a.m., four similar dispatches were sent, all sourcing only the families, and still indicating no confirmation from the governor or the coal company.

At 12:34 a.m., the first comment from Gov. Joe Manchin, who was with the miners’ families, appeared. AP quoted him as saying, “They told us they have 12 alive. We have some people that are going to need some medical attention.” It did not describe who “they” were, how Manchin had discovered this, and if this was an official announcement or on-the-fly.

Many newspapers have also attributed to Manchin a statement from this time period that “miracles do happen” (as The New York Times later had it) or “miracles happen,” or “Believe in miracles” (CNN) — none of which was exactly “a miracle did happen.”

We now know, from Manchin and others, that he had been in the Sago Baptist Church when very unofficial word of a rescue filtered in, perhaps via cell phone, setting off a wild celebration. He joined in briefly, and then asked aides if they had actual confirmation.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports today, “Mr. Manchin turned to his security crew, which was in regular contact with mine company executives and rescue teams. ‘Did anyone call us?’ the governor asked. ‘No, sir,’ said the state trooper who was monitoring every development. ‘We haven’t heard anything?’ ‘No,’ the trooper repeated.”

At this point Manchin hastily exited, perhaps making his “medical attention” and “miracles” statements as he left.

On Thursday, the AP carried this account of this crucial period: “Manchin had been in the church praying with the families when the unidentified man made the announcement (that the men were safe). He looked around at his troopers and communications people in puzzlement. ‘Have we confirmed that?’ he asked. No, was the reply.

“Manchin told families that he was going back over to the mine to get more information.

“Wanda Groves, the mother of trapped miner Jerry Groves, was walking beside Manchin when she stumbled. As the governor helped the struggling woman regain her footing, Darlene Groves, the woman’s daughter-in-law, touched the sleeve of the governor’s leather jacket and asked him: ‘Are all 12 men alive?’

“Darlene Groves said the governor turned to her and said quietly, ‘Yes.’

“Manchin would say later he got ‘caught up in the euphoria.’ But what was supposed to have been a personal exchange was overheard, and a private word of encouragement suddenly took the shape of official confirmation from the highest level of state government.” AP says he repeated this when a reporter talked to him privately a few minutes later, by phone.

Yet many newspapers have referred to Manchin “announcing” that the miners had been saved.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, put to bed a front-page story which declared, without any qualfiers, that the miners had been found alive and the only source cited (beyond the families) was this: “Gov. Joe Manchin III said some would need medical attention.”

Several papers reported Thursday that Manchin’s office says he never tried to indicate he was clearly confirming that the miners were alive. The Charleston (W.V.) Gazette bolstered this claim, in revealing, “In the hour after the joyous announcement, Tom Hunter, Manchin’s press secretary, told the media he could not give official confirmation that the dozen miners had indeed been found safe.”

In the same story, Manchin’s spokeswoman, Lara Ramsburg, said nobody on his staff ever confirmed that the 12 were alive.

The New York Times today offered this balanced assessment: Manchin’s “miracles” comment “was taken by some residents and reporters as confirmation that the miners had survived. But Mr. Manchin said he had not meant to give that impression.”

At 12:55 am, another AP story repeated that the coal company had not confirmed the news, but said a family member at the church “said a mine foreman called relatives there, saying the miners had been found” — not exactly a solid source. Nevertheless, around the country, hundreds of newspapers were putting to bed front pages with headlines such as “They’re Alive” or “12 Miners Saved.”

***

Another source — one of the very few, as it turns out — enters the story here.

In its Wednesday morning front-page story reporting a rescue, The New York Times attributed the news to two sources: family members, and a less-than-definitive statement by an official in the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, Joe Thornton. He “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.”

Oddly, in an extensive Web search, E&P has been unable to find any other quote from Thornton in any other publication, except the ones that had apparently picked it up from the Times. Thornton told E&P on Friday that he was the chief spokesman in the command center trailer that night. He said he had responded to as many as 100 phone calls, and informed all reporters that he could not confirm the miracle rescue, and never said they were being treated for injuries. The fact that few, if any, papers beyond the Times used him as a confimring source proves this, he stated.

Dao stands strongly by his story, however, telling E&P that Thornton did confirm and also stated that the rescued miners were being “triaged.” (See separate story about this on this site, via link below). A New York Times spokesman said the same thing.

A final media source in this story is U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. Like Manchin, she was at the church celebrating with families, and at 12:28 a.m., when asked by CNN what she could confirm, she said “12 miners alive.” She added that she had no idea how that happened or their condition.

Again, it is unclear where she got this information or if she was asked where she got it, or even how she would know. In any case, she was not cited as a source by any newspapers that we have found.

As far as we can determine, these are the only sources cited by the media, to this date: family members (celebrating on the basis of misinformation from cell phone calls) , a governor (who received no information of his own and was merely responding to the families’ joy), one state official (hardly used at all as a source perhaps because he likely told most if not all callers he could not confirm the story) and a congresswoman (who also had no information of her own).

***

After this brief frenzy just before and just after midnight, the picture, for journalists, changed. Manchin was gone, and despite later reports by family members, there appears to be no evidence that anyone from the coal company came to the church to make any rescue statements — or talked to the media. By this time, we now know, the coal company knew there was likely just the one survivor, but this did not leak out at all.

Then, about 1 a.m., reporters and camera crews were asked by state police to leave the church and move a few hundred feet away, reportedly at the request of the families. One can speculate that the police had been told that bad news was coming, but this is not at all certain.

It would be more than 90 minutes until the coal company official came to the church to announce the bad news. There is no evidence that during all this any of the reporters were successful at finding more sources — or, as time passed without a resolution, that they expressed any doubts to editors in their offices. Then again, they are not talking.

One might expect that some would have grown a little skeptical about the miracle rescue their papers back home were already announcing on the Web sites and in print copies flying off their presses. A dozen ambulances had stood ready to take the miners to a hospital for two hours, but only one had exited so far, just after 1 a.m., carrying what turned out to be the sole survivor. The others idled. A press conference by the coal company had been delayed. Not a confirming word or leak of any kind was emerging from the company or any state officials.

What were reporters, now separated from the families around the church, doing and thinking all this time? They aren’t talking.

The Post-Gazette reported today that between 1 a.m. and 1:30 a.m., “a man who was either from the Red Cross or one of the rescue teams stood up and told families that the miners would be arriving within an hour.” Perhaps, if this indeed happened, the families took this person to be a coal company official.

At 2:49 a.m., AP reported that eight ambulances had “filed toward the mine entrance” but offered no attribution. That same story had no reference to the coal company confirming anything.

At 3:06 a.m., AP offered a story in which family members said the coal company had told them that the miners were dead. At 3:14 a.m., the AP quoted a coal company official, who said the miners had died.

***

Link to story on the Joe Thornton sourcing:

http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001807334

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