Plenty Of Blame To Go Around

As we noted earlier, the criticism is already pouring in for the media's collective handling of the West Virginia mine tragedy. How, many are surely wondering, could the cable networks, wire services and Web sites have been so misinformed? How could they report, even on the front pages of this morning's newspapers, that twelve miners had been rescued when, in fact, only one survived?

Instead of asking those questions, ask yourself this: How would you, as a reporter, producer or editor have handled the situation? This wasn't simply going with information from sources that went unchecked, this was covering a breaking news situation, which included covering hours of public celebration by family members who claimed they had been told of a miraculous rescue. Here's a rough timeline of how the story unfolded late last night and early this morning:

  • Just before midnight eastern time, according to Editor & Publisher, "newspaper reporters and anchors such as Rita Crosby [MSNBC] interviewed euphoric loved ones and helped spread the news about the miracle rescue [of 12 of 13 trapped coal miners in West Virginia]. Newspaper Web sites announced the happy news and many put it into print for Wednesday right at late deadlines." Most of these reports did not point out that the mine company had not confirmed these reports.
  • Those reports continued until about 2:45, when a West Virginia woman interrupted Anderson Cooper's broadcast on CNN to say that the miners were dead. "Cooper initially seemed skeptical of her comments, and nervous about repeating them on-air," writes TV Newser. "But as he heard screaming from the church, and he saw other family members crying down the road, he realized it was true." MSNBC followed the report a few minutes later, and Fox News a few minutes after that, with the grim news.
  • At roughly 3:00, sent out an email alert saying that "[f]amily members report that 11 of the 12 coal miners who were initially thought to have survived an explosion in a coal mine have died."'s story was not updated for at least 18 minutes. Michael Sims, Director of News and Operations for says the story was being written, adding, "while it took us 18 minutes to gather the facts, write, and publish the story, we should have placed a brief alert at the top of the site."
  • Also around 3:00, reports that the story had made a dramatic reversal were coming in to Bob Bicknell, the Executive Producer of "Up To The Minute," CBS's overnight news broadcast. "Up To The Minute" does 8 minute newsblocks at the top and bottom of every hour. If there's no new news in a story, they often rerun the newsblock from the previous hour. That was their plan for the 3:00 newsblock – to rerun correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi's report from 2:00. At around 2:59:45, Bicknell says, he was on the phone with producers and the national desk to try to confirm that previous reports were wrong, and that the twelve miners were in fact dead. He couldn't confirm in time, however, and so "Up To The Minute" reran the 2:00 newblock. About two minutes in, however, Bicknell says "we interrupted ourselves on tape" – breaking into a report on what had been deemed a "miracle" – for a live interview with Alfonsi, who relayed the tragic news. At 3:30 CBS correspondent Bob Orr did a new report as well from the scene. The "Early Show" featured extensive coverage, as did other networks and cable news channels.

    In assessing the coverage of this story, it's vital to try and understand how this misinformation spread. As Fishbowl DC's Garrett Graff points out:

    "The media wasn't going off a single anonymous source or making things up out of thin air--and it wasn't telling the families incorrectly that their relatives were alive. Wherever the incorrect information originally came from, the family members told the media about it."
    Having gone back and watched some of the initial cable news coverage and read some of the early reports, a couple points jump out. First, the family and friends who were gathered to wait for word clearly were under the belief that the initial claim of 12 survivors was true (some even said an "official" had told them in person). Secondly, the actual officials themselves, including West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, behaved as if they believed it as well (whether they ever officially announced it or not).

    Added on to the clear euphoria were some strange corroborating incidents. For example, when news of the rescue began to spread throughout the crowd, CNN's Andersen Cooper reported, "the governor of West Virginia, we're told, just walked out of the church and said, 'believe in miracles.'" Some of those gathered said officials had even told them there had been communication with the survivors and that they wanted to come see their families before going to the hospital, as seen on the "Early Show." And, in one of the strangest incidents, this morning CBS' Alfonsi reported this:

    "Just in case you might be thinking maybe these families misheard, we were at our satellite truck … when word that there were survivors was out and a nurse came up to the truck and came over and detailed the conditions of each of those 12 survivors."
    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.