Mine tragedy was news disaster

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Last week, we witnessed more than just the tragic death of 12 miners following an explosion just one day into 2006.

We witnessed one more kink in the reputation chain of the media.

Over-excited reporters got caught in the emotion that comes with extremely stressful situations like the one at the Sago Mine. Then, their editors, on deadline, made poor decisions that only exacerbated an incredibly horrible fiasco.

Many across America awoke last Wednesday morning to headlines such as &8220;Miracle at Sago: 12 Miners Alive,&8221; which appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Other headlines:

The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.) – &8220;Miner Miracle: They&8217;re Alive&8221;

Boston Herald – &8220;Miner Miracle&8221;

Daily News (New York, N.Y.) – &8220;Miracle in W.Va.: Alive!&8221;

The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.) – &8220;Miracles happen in West Virginia&8221;

The Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.) – Twelve miners found alive

The New York Times – &8220;12 miners found alive after 41 hours after explosion&8221;

St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.) – &8220;They&8217;re alive&8221;

There were other well-respected newspapers across the country that printed what turned out to be only a rumor including the Washington Post, the Oregonian and USA Today.

Some newspapers including The Birmingham News ran an inaccurate story from the Associated Press along with a qualified headline, attributing the rumor to relatives of the miners.

It turned out … three hours after some negligent editors decided to run with the story regardless of having no official report, the truth finally came out.

All the miners were dead except for one who held precariously to life.

Since these tragedies &8212; first the explosion that eventually killed the miners, then the rumors that reported all of them alive and the truth that all but one had died &8212; many journalism pundits have written about the situation.

They have asked the same question I found myself asking last week &8212; how could this happen?

What happened to the very first rule of journalism &8212; accuracy?

When was accuracy replaced with speed?

When did the need to be the first newspaper or media organization to break a story become the goal?

I think it began with television news channels like CNN. Then came FOX News and MSNBC.

These stations offer up-to-the-minute news. Get it quick, watch it fast and if it&8217;s wrong, don&8217;t worry. It can be turned around in the next minute.

That&8217;s just not good enough for me. And it should not be good enough for legitimate newspapers and media organizations such as the Associated Press.

One journalism pundit David D. Perlmutter wrote that &8220;the media did not create the rumor that the miners were safe. Miscommunication, misheard phone exchanges and optimistic gossip probably lay at the root of the bad information.&8221;

He went on to write, &8220;Modern newscraft, addicted to technology, worships the god of speed. Laptops, satellites and cell phones make live-from ground-zero reporting alluring.&8221;

The problems stemming from this are evident.

&8220;As a result, we have lost all perspective about what is an important story and more vital, what is most important about a news story: getting the facts right,&8221; he continued.

If we, as journalists, cannot be expected to &8220;get the facts right,&8221; how can we possibly expect our readers to believe us?

Editors and reporters who were responsible for this negligence have spoken out since it happened. Some have expressed regret and apologized for what amounts to bad journalism. Others have laughed it off with comments that amounted to &8220;Too bad.&8221;

Those who feel that way are going to be the death of print media.

Perlmutter said it best.

&8220;In an era when many newsworkers are wondering about their future, giving the public information they can trust, respect and need is both good journalism and good business.&8221;

It&8217;s absolutely essential if we&8217;re going to survive as an industry