West Virginia Mining Disaster, 2006

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By: Greg Mitchell

Despite repeated efforts, E&P, in preparing several major articles this week, has been unable to interview wire service and newspaper reporters who were close to the scene of the West Virginia mine disaster, and filed what turned out to be tragically faulty stories about a miracle rescue. What really went down that night and how did the reporting go so wrong? Few are talking.

This didn?t stop us from piecing together the sad trail of weak sourcing (see separate Jan. 5 story on this site). But to get an intimate view of what happened, or might have happened, that night, we turn to an eyewitness, who provides a few penetrating insights.

His named is Robert Rupp, a historian and professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon. We only know about him because of an excellent Thursday article in the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette. The story revealed that he had arrived at the Sego Baptist Church in the midst of the celebration of the ?rescue,? where he learned, from an unnamed official, that bad news was about to arrive (a half hour later, it certainly did).

When I talked to Rupp late Thursday, he explained that the only way he got to the church was because he was a local, and his minister (from another church) was inside. By this point, nearly 1 a.m., an hour after the celebration began, members of the media had been ordered out of the church by the state police and moved a few hundred feet away, to give the families some peace.

So Rupp was not on the scene to catch whatever Gov. Joe Manchin or anyone else might have said to the media confirming or denying that a rescue had taken place. But he did have some interesting comments on the context, describing a kind of perfect storm likely to lead to ?missed communication?: t he lateness of the hour, the exhaustion of everyone involved (after two days of crisis), no chain of command for information. Unlike nearby Pennsylvania, the state has no Bureau of Mines. There was no union presence, and the coal company had just taken over the mine a few weeks ago.

Added to that, he said, ?In any rescue situation there is a dynamic of hope,? which can guide facts down blind alleys. And there was both ?no control of information? and the dangerous presence of a new technology, i.e. cellphones, which swiftly carried rumors to the families of the victims.

Rupp remains amazed that the press took the governor?s uninformed ?confirmation? of the rescue at face value. Getting swept up in the joyous ?alternate universe? of the church was ?human nature,? and sounds like ?the Manchin I know,? he said. But he points out, ?governors are not journalists.? Using him as the prime source for rescue was wrong, as ?the media didn?t ask where he got the information, but went right along, instead of playing Journalism 101 and getting a true second source.?

As time passed, he said he looked out at the reporters, now in the distance, and assumed that they were growing skeptical about a positive outcome, after 90 minutes and then more time passed without any further ?confirmation?–and only one ambulance (carrying the sole suvivor) had left the site. Were the reporters calling their editors and voicing doubts? If not, why not? ?What were they talking about, among themselves?? he wonders.

At the same time, Rupp did not notice any dimming of the families? hopes and celebration, despite some suggestions that the coal mine officials had asked one or more pastors, or police, to start spreading hints at the church that the outcome may not be so wonderful. He doubts that this attempt at leaking the true outcome even happened. Although someone at the scene told him about the bad turn of events deep in the mine, he didn?t see any evidence that anyone else knew.

When I wondered why those in charge didn?t at least leak it the press, he said he believes the officials ad the ?usual reaction? in such cases: first, a reluctance to allow for any uncertainty or ambiguity; and then later, to face the true facts, to put off bad news as long as possible and accept blame. The result: a ?cruel joke? on the victims? families.

But then he made this leap: Was the press so different from that? The media, also, seemed unwilling to allow any uncertainty or ambiguity or ?unconfirmed? reports. Television especially, but also many in the press, presented the ?miracle? without qualifiers, and based on very shaky sourcing. Like the officials, he said, ?they did not trust that people could handle that.?

*
In the days since the media’s wrong turn, dozens of editors and ombuds have written pieces in print or on their Web sites recounting this episode. Some have apologized, and admitted making a grave mistake, but a surprising number have defended what happened, saying it could not be helped, they did everything they could, you have to trust your sources, etc.

Consider the following from John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. (about 20 minutes from where my son now goes to school). In his blog at his site, he took issue with a critique I wrote earlier this week.

“Mitchell says papers should have pursued ‘proper sources.’ In fact, the relatives did say the miners had been found alive and bells did ring out. The governor did say ‘They told us they have 12 alive.’ Oh, how I wish the governor and the relatives had been right.

“When we went to press, a little after 1 a.m., the story was correct. Or, rather, it reported what people were saying. We weren’t there, of course, but I would consider the relatives and the governor as proper sources. In retrospect, they weren’t. By the time the truth about the miners’ fate came out, our press run was complete.

“Should reporters on the scene have done more reporting, trying to pin down someone who truly knew? Yes, of course, but that’s easy to say from the comfort of an office. Had one of our reporters been there, I doubt that we would have demanded other sourcing at that time of the night. Should we have waited to publish, even as all of our wire services were reporting the same thing? No, although I wish we had. I don’t know how we could have been so prescient.

“But in the end, the story we published was wrong and we feel sick about that.”

In other words, the sources (including bells ringing out and people who had no direct information on the rescue, including the governor) in retrospect were shaky and the reporters should have done more reporting, but we did everything right because it was all based on what “people were saying.” This sounds something like Judy Miller’s defense of her Iraq WMD reporting.

Then there is another group of editors who have denied that this was a profoundly disturbing error while, oddly, admitting that the first rules of journalism were not followed.

Connie Coyne, reader advocate for the Salt Lake Tribune, for example, noted that some misguided critics had called this “a dark day for the industry. ” Her response: “Oh, get over yourselves. “

But then, without missing a beat, she observed, “But the big lesson that should come out of this is simple: Reporters cannot allow the emotions they see in an unfolding story to take them over. Faced with a group of people rushing out of the Sago Baptist Church and praising God, raising hymns like ‘How Great Thou Art,’ and then falling into each others’ arms, a reporter should take careful notes and then should begin to think of the questions that need answers.

“If West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin actually verified the number of survivors, then someone should have asked him how he knew that. The only thing TV viewers could actually see Manchin doing was sticking his thumb up in the air and saying, ‘Believe in miracles.’ That statement is not a verification of the number of survivors.

“Someone needed to ask some tough questions right away. ”

Then she quoted a retired journalist saying, “Good journalism starts with good questions. And too few were being asked that night.”

If not a dark day for journalism, it surely was a dark night.

***

Please follow this link to E&P’s exclusive, detailed account of the “sourcing” on this story:

http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001806511

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