UPDATE: Another West Virginia Mine ‘Escape’ Report Questioned, Then Confirmed

By: E&P Staff

Less than a week after most newspapers wrongly carried news that 12 trapped miners had been rescued in West Virginia, some of them ran with another story, sourcing a miner’s family. But most seemed to have learned a lesson from the earlier mistake, adding multiple qualifiers to that initial report in their headlines and text.

On Tuesday, many newspapers reported that the trapped miners had tried to break out of the mine using a rail car. The only source for this: relatives of the sole surviving miner, who said they had been told about this by the mine company’s chief executive, Ben Hatfield. One said: “This ain’t hearsay. This came from Hatfield’s mouth.”

This echoed what had transpired the previous week, when many journalists reported secondhand information from family members as fact. The Associated Press story by David Dishneau opened this way: “Footprints inside the Sago Mine indicate the trapped miners tried to use a mechanized mine car to force their way out after the explosion, family members of the sole survivor said.”

Unlike the previous week, however, when most papers carried headlines with no qualifiers — such as “12 Miners Saved” — this time most of them (like the AP) placed the sole source right at the top. The New York Times headline, for example, read “Miners Tried Escape By Rail Car, Family Says.” The Times story took the unusual step of attributing the report to the Associated Press three separate times in the first three paragraphs.

The Seattle Times headline held no qualifiers: “Miners attempted to flee in mine car.”

The New York Times story noted that efforts to reach representatives of the coal company were unsuccessful. And it quoted a spokeswoman for Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Lara Ramsburg, telling The Associated Press (a fourth reference to the AP in this brief story) that the state believed that the men had tried to escape — without mentioning a specific rail car escape one way or the other.

But then Thursday’s papers carried word from federal officials that while the miners did try to escape, they did it by starting to walk to an exit, before getting turned back by smoke. They said they had heard nothing to confirm the account by relatives of the only survivor that the men had tried to force their way out in a rail car but that their escape route had been blocked by debris. Rescuers found no such blockage, the officials said.

However, also on Wednesday, according to a report by the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette–and confirmed by AP–Hatfield told reporters that the trapped miners did try to escape on a rail car but it “clearly impacted some sort of blockage, probably a piece of debris in the middle of the track.”

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