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West Virginia Mine Tragedy

Media Take Hard Look at What Went Wrong

January 05, 2006|Robin Abcarian and Matea Gold | Times Staff Writers

The West Virginia mine tragedy was an emotional whipsaw that ended up trapping the media -- print and electronic -- into authoritatively reported, but ultimately incorrect, stories. Hours after authorities announced that 12 coal miners believed to be alive were actually dead, millions awoke to newspaper headlines announcing "Miracle in the Mine" or "12 miners rescued" or simply "ALIVE!"

How could the media -- mostly morning newspapers, because radio, television and the Internet could instantaneously correct their errors -- get it so wrong?

It was, said editors across the country, a matter of meeting unforgiving deadlines and relying on sources that seemed credible, including West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and family members of the miners, who announced news of the miners' apparent survival about midnight Eastern time, three hours before the deaths became known about 3 a.m. Wednesday.

"The key is: Were the sources of information credible? And the answer seemed to be yes at the time," said Boston Globe Editor Martin Baron. "They were attributed, identified and quoted, and at some point you have to print a newspaper and deliver it. I really don't know what else we could have done."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 06, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Mine coverage -- An article in Thursday's A section about media coverage of the coal mine accident in West Virginia spelled ABC news correspondent John Donvan's last name as Donovan.

Baron said the Globe's first edition headline cautiously said "12 Miners Reportedly Found Alive." Over the next four editions, the headlines evolved to reflect the changing news. "Jubilation in West Virginia" became "Jubilation, Then Horror" in the final version of the story, which made 147,000 copies of the paper's total run of 414,000.

The New York Times had incorrect stories in all its print editions, said spokesman Toby Usnik in a phone interview. In an e-mailed statement, he said that "all printed copies of today's Times were circulating" by the time the paper confirmed the deaths at 3:25 a.m. and posted the story on its website. Stories in the print edition, he wrote, "relied on attributed sources."

Newspapers on the West Coast, including the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register, benefited from the time difference. The Times was able to stop its presses just after midnight, said Times Assistant Managing Editor John Arthur, when editors learned that all but one of the 13 miners trapped by an explosion in the Tallmansville, W.Va., mine Monday morning had perished.

Trucks loaded with incorrect stories were called back, and 204,861 newspapers were discarded. A new front page and corrected story went to press at 12:45 a.m.

While print outlets contended with remaking front pages, network television reporters were forced to amend their broadcasts midstream during Wednesday's predawn hours, testing their abilities to absorb the news along with viewers and deftly respond to it.

CNN's Anderson Cooper was on the air at 2:46 a.m. Eastern time, discussing how doctors planned to treat the rescued miners, when a woman and her two children rushed out of the church behind him where the community was holding vigil. "Only one made it out alive," Lynette Roby said in anguished tones.

"Where have you gotten this information?" asked Cooper, who was skeptical, then incredulous, then angry as Roby explained what she had heard inside the church.

"I don't know how this information could come out that these people are alive.... It's been misinformation, and it's awful," she said. "All this time, we've been told of a miracle and that's why we're here, and there's no miracle, and it's awful."

By 3 a.m., MSNBC, ABC and Fox News were reporting the tragic turn of events. Later Wednesday, the networks defended their handling of the story, saying that they had every reason to believe that the information they originally received was accurate.

"It was a very confusing situation," said John Stack, vice president of news gathering for Fox News. "There's no page in the textbook for what happened last night. There were official or semi-official people repeating the same information until it became perceived fact."

Mark Effron, MSNBC's vice president for daytime news programming who also oversees breaking news during the night, said the network did not "passively take in what we were hearing" but sought out multiple confirmations before reporting the rescue.

James Goldston, executive producer of ABC's "Nightline," which reported the apparent rescue for East Coast viewers and broke in live to announce the deaths to West Coast viewers at 2:59 a.m. Eastern time, said correspondent John Donovan had been skeptical of the early news that the miners had been found alive. "We refused to run it until we had specific confirmation that was double, triple, quadruple sourced," Goldston said.

Still, many outlets believed their customers deserved an explanation. Don Wycliff, public editor of the Chicago Tribune, was preparing a column for today's newspaper explaining how the paper erred.

"I sometimes have the sense that readers think we've got these inside channels to everything, and that there's some way we have of crawling along with the search team and we know the honest-to-God true facts and for some reason withheld it," Wycliff said.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said that though she sympathized with reporters who were dealing with a fast-breaking story and deadlines, the erroneous accounts were a "failure of skepticism" on the part of reporters.

"The reporter has an obligation to say to the governor, 'How do you know?' and to the family members, 'Who told you?' "

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