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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
- Searching for a Miracle: Media Coverage of the Sago Mine Disaster Panel to Air On C-SPAN Saturday
As I mentioned earlier, the P.I. Reed School of Journalism had a panel Monday on media coverage of the Sago Mine Disaster. This panel will be broadcast Saturday on C-SPAN at 9 p.m. and again at midnight eastern time.
Our panelists dealt with some difficult issues and had to face questions from former coal miners, a daughter of a mine safety inspector, and a doctoral student in mine safety. I've pasted the text of the press release about the broadcast below.
As the editor/author of the slide show that opened the program, I'm admittedly biased, but I think the program went really well. My intro to mass comm students (280 of them at 8:30 in the morning) spent quite a bit of time talking about it at the start of class Tuesday.
BTW, I would like to publicly thank Randy Jessee of the Richmond Times-Dispatch for creating the original comprehensive slide show of Sago front pages from which our slides were drawn.
Here's an excerpt from the WVU press release:
C-SPAN to broadcast WVU Sago Mine disaster media panel
Julie Cryser, School of Journalism 304-293-3505, ext. 5403
C-SPAN will broadcast “Searching for a Miracle: Media Coverage of the Sago Mine Disaster” Festival of Ideas panel coordinated by the West Virginia University Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism Saturday, Feb. 18, at 9 p.m. and midnight.
C-SPAN taped the panel for broadcast. Viewers who missed the live panel discussion Feb. 13 can tune in to reporters from CNN, CBS , USA Today, the New York Daily News and the Charleston Gazette and listen to their examination of media coverage of the Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 miners. The panel was part of WVU's prestigious Festival of Ideas lecture series.
Reporters and media experts discussed the challenges faced by journalists covering the story, the lessons they learned and the role that 24-hour news coverage may have played in one of the most controversial media accounts of the century.
Panelists included CNN's Randi Kaye; CBS' Sharyn Alfonsi and Mike Solmsen; USA Today's Mark Memmott; the Charleston Gazette's Scott Finn; and the New York Daily News' Derek Rose. Kelly McBride, the Poynter Institute's ethics faculty member, moderated the panel.
Friday - February 10, 2006
- Searching for a Miracle: Media Coverage of the Sago Mine Disaster
A press release on a project I've helped plan for the last couple of weeks:
West Virginia University's Festival of Ideas lecture series continues Monday (Feb. 13) with "Searching for a Miracle: Media Coverage of the Sago Mine Disaster."
On January 2, 2006, an explosion in the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia, trapped 13 miners and began a two-day rescue mission to find and save them. In one of the most controversial media accounts of the twenty-first century, newspapers, radio, and television reported just before midnight on January 3 that 12 of the 13 miners had survived when, in fact, only one had survived. During this panel discussion, journalists from CNN, CBS, USA Today, the Charleston Gazette, the New York Daily News and the Poynter Institute will discuss media coverage of the Sago Mine Disaster, the ethical implications of the crisis coverage, and the lessons learned. They will also discuss the role the 24-hour news cycle played in one of the biggest media faux pas of the century.
The presentation begins at 7:30pm in the Mountainlair Ballrooms. This event is free and open to the public. Seating is limited on a first-come, first-served basis.
This presentation is produced by the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism and WVU Arts & Entertainment. For more information, call 293-SHOW or visit http://www.events.wvu.edu/foi/
Wednesday - January 18, 2006
- Have You No Sense of Decency? Dept. - Protesters, Funerals, and the Press
- Can Protesters Be Banned From Picketing Funerals?
Illinois is considering a law that would ban demonstrations outside of funerals to keep groups from disrupting them. But would they be constitutional? The Associated Press quotes Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn as saying, "It is not right, it is not legal, it is not constitutional for any person to disrupt a funeral." Which at first glance sounds reasonable, but read the article from the First Amendment Center to see some other thoughts on the topic.
I bring this question up because of the loathsome protests conducted by a Kansas based group outside of the funeral for the fallen miners from the Sago disaster earlier this week. My thoughts were not so much that the protests should/could be banned, but rather whether the press should refuse to give publicity to these groups. I'm still not sure what I think about it.
My initial research on the topic shows that this law, and similar ones, are being passed largely as a response to a single group. The problem is that there are legitimate groups that might want to protest outside of a funeral. For example, a city could easily want to shut down a protest about police brutality that is staged around the funeral of a victim of a police shooting. Who would be protected here? The victim's family or the city? Are there alternatives to banning these protests?
- How Should The Press Cover High-Profile Funerals?
The presence of the press at funerals that lots of people are interested in can be disruptive, but they can also help people make sense out of troubling situations. In the case of the funeral for Sago miner Jerry Groves, the family invited the Associated Press to attend and cover the funeral. (Daily Mail)
Tuesday - January 10, 2006
Questions Worth Asking (Maybe)
- Why do I Think The National Press Was Insensitive in Their Coverage of Sago?
Despite the fact that I complain above about ugly rhetoric on the Internet, I got a thoughtful note from Ronald E. George, news adviser to The Battalion at Texas A&M, about my first entry on the Sago Mine disaster. He writes:
I appreciate your critique of press performance regarding the Sago mine disaster, and yes, who would not agree that rushing to print the rumor of a miracle [was wrong]. I do not see, however, how this relates to your suggestion that the national press was insensitive to this being “a story about real people with real losses.” Nothing in your critique supports the conclusion that journalists at the scene were indifferent to the gravity and meaning of this catastrophe.
Ron is correct that I didn't develop that point particularly well, and it would have been good for me to do so. I think what happens is that when the cable news networks go wall-to-wall with a story, they tend to lose sight of the people involved. It's easy to start viewing an event in dramatic terms rather than human terms. In the days that have followed the disaster, I think many journalists have sat back, breathed, and thought about what went wrong. As I said on a local news issue program over the weekend, I think the journalists had their hearts in the right place; they just lost sight of what and who the story really was about.
Friday - January 6, 2006
More Thoughts on the Sago Mine Coverage
Watch for updates throughout the day.
- Coverage of Mine Safety
In my entry yesterday, I suggested that the national press corps could do a better job of covering safety issues relating to coal mines. It seemed to me that the only time the press outside of Appalachia looked at the issue was when miners died. So rather than just pontificate, I decided to take a look at Lexis-Nexis.
Here's the search strategy for those of you who want to play along at home. For 2005, I looked for stories in major newspapers that mentioned mine safety and coal within 10 words of each other, and didn't mention China. (China has had a huge number of mine disasters, and most of the stories you'll find on Lexis-Nexis without that exclusion deal with China.)
The search yielded 17 stories. If you exclude stories from foreign papers, you're left with eight stories. One of these dealt with limits on Christmas lights in a coal mining town in Maryland. That leaves seven. Three of them were from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a major daily in the heart of coal country. That leaves 4 stories on coal mine safety in major newspapers in 2004.
A search of West Virginia media, on the other hand, shows 70 stories on the topic ran. All of these are from the Charleston Gazette or the AP. (The Charleston Daily Mail isn't included in the Lexis-Nexis archives.)
Now I would fully expect there to be much more coverage of mine safety in West Virginia than in that nation at large, but only four stories?
For the sake of completeness, there have been 30 stories run in major newspapers that meet these search criteria in the last week, of which 2 came from foreign papers, for a total of 28.
- CJR Daily - "If Your Mother Says She Loves You, Check It Out"
Gal Beckerman points out that the mistakes the press made were understandable, but they need to be ready and willing to admit that they made mistakes.
- Jay Rosen - "Today we fell short." vs. "I'm not seeing any obvious missteps."
A great round up of explanations from newspapers of what went wrong with coverage of Sago. Prof. Rosen gives examples of good and bad apologies. His commentary reminds me of an old joke:
Mother: "Tell your sister you're sorry you called her stupid."
Brother: "Sister, I'm sorry you're stupid."
- Sago Disaster Has Wikipedia Entry
I continue to find myself amazed at how quickly things change in the media world. There is already a massive Wikipedia entry complete with chemical diagrams outlining what may have caused the explosion and screen captures of the botched news coverage from Tuesday night / Wednesday morning. As of this writing, there is also an extensive political analysis of the cause of the accident. Why does this matter? Because once the initial flurry of stories passes, this will be one of the lasting sources students will go to first for information about this event.
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?
- There were no official sources cited, other than the governor.
- When the governor made his statement, he noted "They told us..." Not a name, "they."
- Later on the story said, "The company did not immediately confirm the news."
- There were no details on condition or where the miners were found.
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?
- There was the understandable problem of midnight deadlines. It's very difficult to handle a breaking story under these circumstances. But news organizations certainly could have been clearer on the unconfirmed nature of the reports.
- News organizations have gotten way too comfortable passing on unconfirmed stories that originate in the realm of blogs and rumors. No longer do stories have to be true, it just has to be true that the story is out there. When we are dealing with rumors about misconduct by politicians whose reality is more subject to interpretation, perhaps this is ok (though I don't really think so). But when we are talking about the lives or ordinary people, this just doesn't cut it.
- The facts of the news just didn't match the story reporters were looking for. Everyone was looking for a "miracle story" where everyone would be rescued and everything would turn out fine. Unfortunately, that wasn't the story reporters found.
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.