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Sago Mine Disaster Media Analysis Archive

I've done several entries on media coverage of the Sago Mine Disaster. Here are all of them in one place.

Note that some of these links are short term and will expire after two weeks. If you have access to Lexis-Nexis at your college or university library, you can retrieve many of the stories that are no longer on the web.

Main Archive List

Friday - February 17, 2006

Friday - February 10, 2006

Wednesday - January 18, 2006

Tuesday - January 10, 2006

Questions Worth Asking (Maybe)

Friday - January 6, 2006

More Thoughts on the Sago Mine Coverage
Watch for updates throughout the day.

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Thursday - January 5, 2006

What Went Wrong With Reporting on the West Virginia Mine Disaster
I live in Morgantown, WV, and for the last few days it has been the epicenter of round-the-clock coverage of the Sago mine disaster. For those of us who live here, this is not a made-for-television saga, this is a hometown story. Our friends and neighbors are coal miners. We are not far from where the nine Quecreek miners managed to survive being trapped underground in 2002.

So let me start by saying that journalists, especially those in the national press corps, need to remember that this is a story about real people with real losses. This is not an opportunity to feed the beast with compelling stories - this is a story about the worst thing people can imagine.

As most of you no doubt know at this point, an explosion early Monday trapped 13 miners deep below ground in the Sago Mine. About 9 p.m. Tuesday, the first body was discovered in the mine, according to a timeline in Thursday's Washington Post. At 11:45 p.m., one miner was found alive more than 2 miles into the tunnel.

At this point, things started to get confusing. According to the Post, at 12:18 a.m. the rescue command center heard a report from a rescue worker that 12 miners were found alive. Apparently this early report was overheard and spread instantly through a crowd that had been praying for a miracle. Church bells started ringing. People started crying, singing, cheering. According to the Charleston Daily Mail, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin had come out to the mine to wait with family members, and says that he asked for confirmation of the good news. Although he didn't get the confirmation, Manchin said he was quickly caught up by the joyous mood: ""[W]e went out with the people and they said, ‘They found them.' We got swept up in this celebration. I said, ‘The miracle of all miracles has happened.' "

Now there would seem to be some level of official confirmation, if the governor was making a comment.

But within the next half hour, reports started coming into the command center that only one miner was alive - reports that were not passed on to families or the press until nearly 3 a.m.

Now if you have ever worked in the newspaper business, you know that morning papers, such as the Charleston Gazette, start going to press around midnight (if not a little earlier). Newspapers have to make really tough calls on a breaking story, and unlike television, they leave a permanent reminder of the times they get it wrong.

For example, the Gazette had the headline "Twelve Alive!" in its early edition, something that was corrected in the final edition.

Matthew Thompson, writing in the Daily Mail, gives a good sample of how the story progressed throughout the night, going from jubilation to tragedy. (This link is to the second page of the story.)

National papers were every bit as likely to have had problems with the story as were local papers. USA Today , with perhaps the best national distribution, devoted third of the front page to the rescue story on Wednesday. On Thursday, this was followed by a pretty intense look at how the story was botched.

I should note here that the Daily Mail is an afternoon paper, and hence did not get caught in the same time trap that hurt so many morning papers. According to industry newsweekly Editor & Publisher, the Inter-Mountain, an 11,000 circulation afternoon daily out of Elkins, WV, managed to get the story right, not only its print edition, but also on its web site. E&P quotes Inter-Mountain editor Linda Skidmore as saying:

"I feel lucky that we are an afternoon paper and we have the staff that we do. We had a reporter there all night at the scene and I was on the phone with her the whole time."

"I was on the phone with her and I was hearing things on CNN and FOX that she was not hearing there," Skidmore said about reporter Becky Wagoner. "She heard that the miners were alive just before it was broadcast, around midnight. She talked about hearing church bells ringing and people yelling in jubilation--but nothing official."

Wagoner, a seven-year veteran of the paper, told E&P she had been covering the story since it broke Monday, and took a photograph at the site that was widely carried by national news outlets. She said rumors about the miners being found alive began circulating at 11:00 p.m. last night, with broadcast reports beginning at about midnight. "We heard that they were found alive through CNN, then it snowballed to ABC, then FOX and it was like a house afire," recalled Wagoner, who said she was at the media information center set up by the mine's operators, International Coal Group Inc., when the reports spread.

"A lot of the media left to go to the church where family members were located, but I stayed put because this was where every official news conference was given--and we never got anything official here," she said. "Something was not right. Then we were hearing reports that 12 ambulances had gone in [to the mine area] but only one was coming out. There was so much hype that no one considered the fact that there was no [official] update."

For myself, I went to bed Tuesday night with reports on the Internet announcing that the miners had been found alive. When I sat down to breakfast and my local paper on Wednesday morning, though, I knew immediately that something was off with the story. The report from the AP read:

Twelve miners caught in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive Tuesday night, more than 41 hours after the blast, family members and Gov. Joe Manchin III said.

Bells at a church where relatives had been gathering rang out as family members ran out screaming in jubilation.

Relatives yelled, "They're alive!"

Manchin said rescuers told him the miners were found.

"They told us they have 12 alive," Manchin said. "We have some people that are going to need some medical attention."

A few minutes after word came, the throng, several hundred strong, broke into a chorus of the hymn "How Great Thou Art," in a chilly, night air.

How could a reader tell there were problems with the story?

In short, the story read like it was passing along second-hand accounts. When I went back to the Internet to see the latest updates, all the bad news was there.

How did the press go so wrong with this story?

So what now can journalists do to atone for our sins? I would say that the press, especially the press outside of West Virginia, needs to do a much better job of talking about mine safety standards and enforcement. It's not nearly as easy or as much fun to write about as the latest snarky scandal out of DC, but it needs to be done. We've already started to see some of this. Let's hope that the press doesn't forget this lesson quickly. The people of West Virginia will not.

Additional Coverage

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