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Mining Misinformation

CJR's Gal Beckerman delivers a scolding: "Maybe the reporters on the ground in West Virginia were just plain tired. Or maybe they themselves were swept up in the euphoria and wanted to believe. Otherwise, it's hard to explain how the erroneous news of the survival and rescue of 12 of the 13 miners caught underneath the ground in Sago, West Virginia made it to the front pages of our nation's papers.

"A close reading of the articles themselves tells the tale of how journalists bungled the story: In most, there are no sources at all for the information; in some, the sources are the rumors spread by frantic family members. Those sorts of sources are hardly a solid basis for headlines screaming, 'They're Alive!'

"Take a look at how the venerable Washington Post began its story: 'A dozen miners trapped 12,000 feet into a mountainside since early Monday were found alive Tuesday night just hours after rescuers found the body of a 13th man, who died in an explosion in an adjacent coal mine that was sealed off in early December.'...

"All untrue -- but written with stunning confidence. Nowhere in this Post piece is there any mention of sources."

Kudos to Wichita Eagle Editor Sherry Chisenhall for explaining yesterday why "we (and newspapers across the country) went to press last night with the information we had at the time. But it won't excuse the blunt truth that we violated a basic tenet of journalism today in our printed edition: Report what you know and how you know it. . . .

"Many newspapers and TV stations reported exactly what we did today. But being wrong in crowded company is still being wrong. Our commitment to our readers is to tell you exactly what we know and how we know it. Today, we fell short."

Vaughn Ververs of CBS's Public Eye blog says: "The media doesn't need any apologists, and that's not the aim here. Certainly news organizations could have been much more cautious in what they were reporting and distinguishing between what had actually been confirmed and what had not. The New York Times may have handled it the best with its morning headline, which read: '12 Miners Are Found Alive, Family Members Say.' The story, written by James Dao, sourced the story to 'family members and a state official.'

"But to say that the massive failing here rests on the shoulders of the media alone is almost as misleading as the information that was spread between midnight and 3:00am this morning."

Jeff Jarvis, on the other hand, is disgusted:

"One terrible lesson of the West Virginia mine tragedy is that you can't trust the news. You never could; it has always taken time to see whether stories pan out, to get all the facts, to find out the truth. But now, in our age of instant news and ubiquitous communication, the public sees this process as it occurs. It's not the news that's live; it's the process of figuring out what to believe that's live. Now, indeed, everyone is a reporter and an editor and the public is learning, as reporters learned, that they need to find their ways through the fog of news. The next time I hear someone being haughty about professional news vs. citizen's news, I'll remind them of the West Virginia tragedy, where news traveled ahead of the facts, where everyone was horribly wrong."

At the Huffington Post, Marty Kaplan is in the too-much-coverage camp:

"It's painful to watch television news producers try to figure out the relative importance of the unfolding stories of the 13 trapped miners in West Virginia, and the more than 13 trapped Congressmen in Washington.


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