Mining Misinformation

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006; 8:21 AM

I cringed, along with everyone else, when I saw The Post's above-the-fold headline yesterday: "12 Found Alive in W. Va. Coal Mine."

And USA Today's banner: "'Alive!' Miners Beat the Odds." And the Atlanta Journal Constitution: "12 Miners Alive." And Newsday: "Miracle in the Mine."

If there's been a more heart-rending and humiliating botch of a story, I can't think of it offhand. Yes, the Chicago Tribune elected Dewey in '48 and the networks practically elected Gore in '00, but here there were loved ones desperately awaiting word on the miners, whose premature euphoria was dashed. Cable news was celebratory until CNN's Anderson Cooper broke the story at 2:47 a.m. that all but one miner was dead, not alive.

Sure, the bum information came from West Virginia's governor, and the coal company shamefully refused to correct the record for hours. But the fault lies with the journalists for not instinctively understanding that early, fragmentary information in times of crisis is often wrong. You don't broadcast or publish until it's absolutely nailed down, or at least you hedge the report six ways to Sunday. This was, quite simply, a media debacle, born of news organizations' feverish need to breathlessly report each development 30 seconds ahead of their competitors.

But do journalists blame themselves? Many, you will not be shocked to hear, don't. Here's Associated Press Managing Editor Mike Silverman: ""AP was reporting accurately the information that we were provided by credible sources -- family members and the governor. Clearly, as time passed and there was no firsthand evidence the miners were alive, the best information would have come from mine company officials, but they chose not to talk."

But the "credible sources" didn't know what they were talking about, and the reporters didn't press them hard enough. Remember that another credible source, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, said all sorts of things about violence and so on in the aftermath of Katrina that turned out not to be true. Just quoting someone who's giving you bum information doesn't let you off the hook.

Now a case could be made that we've overcovered this story, that the fate of a dozen miners, as tragic as it is, was not of the same national importance as, say, Jack Abramoff flipping in a case that could implicate a dozen congressmen in corruption. But it was a compelling human drama, the kind that television in particular thrives on.

Still, let's face it: How much have the media done on mine safety in the last few years? Has anyone (I'm sure there are a few exceptions) looked at coal company violations, or how the Bush administration is or isn't enforcing the law? Probably about the same number of journalists who did pieces on why a former Arabian horse official was running FEMA's dysfunctional bureaucracy.

The Sago Mine, we learn now, had 273 safety violations in the past two years, 16 of them very serious. You will now be buried (forgive me) by stories about mine safety, just as you were flooded by post-Katrina pieces on FEMA's problems. But why do the media only get serious about health, safety and regulatory agencies after a major disaster? Heck of a job.

"Are the watchdogs doing their jobs?" NBC's Brian Williams asked last night. I'd extend that question to the press.

"How," asks the Los Angeles Times, "could the media -- mostly morning newspapers, since 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 deadlines and relying on sources that seemed credible, including West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a congressman and family members of the miners, who gave reporters news of the miners' apparent survival about midnight Eastern time, three hours before the deaths became known."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company