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January 5, 2006

"Today, we fell short." vs. "I'm not seeing any obvious missteps."

I don't blame the news media for initially false information about the West Virginia mining disaster. I blame confusion, exhaustion, human emotion and poor decision-making by company officials. Then there are the explanations from editors. Some focus on accuracy. Others on truth.


Right: Sherry Chisenhall, Wichita Eagle editor. “Today, we fell short.”

I’ll explain 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.

Our deadlines would not have given us the time to update the paper with the news at 2 a.m. that the rescue reports were wrong. We published what we believed to be true at the time. But unfortunately, we failed to make clear exactly where those reports were coming from and that they were not confirmed. Instead, our story and headline reported them as certainty.

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.

Wrong: Amanda Bennett, Philadelphia Inquirer editor. “I’m not seeing any obvious missteps.”

After the correct information emerged, Editor & Publisher’s website printed a comprehensive overview of the first big media screw-up of the new year, calling the mistake “disgraceful.”

But the Inquirer’s Bennett isn’t so convinced. “Was there anybody who was there who got it any differently?” asked Bennett. “I’m thinking out loud here…what was disgraceful about this?”

…Some news organizations screwed up less dramatically than others. Unlike the Inquirer, the Associated Press went beyond jubilant family members and reported that the mine’s owner, International Coal Group Inc., “did not immediately confirm that the [12 men] were alive,” lending some much-needed doubt to their reporting.

And of course the rush to be first with the news…or to have the same information everyone else has…shouldn’t come at the expense of getting the information right. But whether anyone will be willing to admit their own culpability in this massive reporting screw-up remains to be seen.

Bennett, for her part, won’t be among them, concluding: “I’m not seeing any obvious missteps.”

Right: Mike Days, Philadelphia Daily News, editor. “We are in the business of reporting truth.”

Mike Days, editor of The Philadelphia Daily News, agreed that newspapers in most cases went with the best information they had. But he said editors must take blame when their stories are wrong, no matter what the reason. “The paper is responsible for everything in the paper and if there is an inaccuracy, in this case a huge one, you have to take responsibility,” Days said. “We are in the business of reporting truth, and we can’t just ignore it.”

Wrong: Marty Baron, Boston Globe, editor. “”It seemed we handled it just fine all along the way.”

Baron told E&P the coverage was as good as could be expected, given the timing of events and the fact that the original reports were coming from rescue workers, government officials, and families of the miners. “It seemed we handled it just fine all along the way,” said Baron. “It’s not like people were working with no information. There were officials commenting on this. As it turned out, wrong information was given out.”

He added that if the paper had held off on the story and it turned out to be true, it would have drawn criticism for waiting too long. “At some point, you’ve got to print a paper,” he said. “I don’t know what else you can do.”

Right: USA Today, Note to readers. “This documentation proved inadequate.”

USA TODAY also incorrectly reported that the survivors had been taken to a hospital by ambulances. In fact, just one ambulance left the mining site. The newspaper’s coverage also included USA TODAY interviews with the miners’ family members, who said they had been told that their relatives were alive.

This documentation proved inadequate and fell short of USA TODAY’s professional standards

Wrong: Mike Silverman, AP, managing editor. “AP was reporting accurately the information that we were provided.”

The Associated Press cited family members in its initial dispatch, at 11:52 p.m., saying the miners were alive. Five versions later, at 12:25 a.m., the story added the quote from Manchin _ “They told us they have 12 alive” _ and dropped attribution for the miners’ rescue to the third paragraph.

“AP was reporting accurately the information that we were provided by credible sources _ family members and the governor,” said Mike Silverman, the news agency’s managing editor. “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.”

I think these are two distinctive philosophies. What do you think?


(This started in comments)

It’s true that the “press” part of what happened in West Virginia is of minor importance compared to the rest, and there isn’t much here that’s malpractice.

It’s true, as well, that if the “announcement” of 12 men alive had been made two, three hours later, no wrong headlines would have been seen, and we wouldn’t be talking about the screw-ups.

But here we have an event where the explanations that journalists give to themselves (what satisifes them as “the reason it happened”) communicate powerfully and intimately to the users of news because the event also “happened” to them. They will remember it for a long time, and talk about it. So will history, whatever that is.

First the audience got taken to miracle land. Then the audience learned it was all a mistake, and the men were dead. So when journalists explain how the news got made, how it broke down, what the procedures at 2 am are, they are, in this case, interpreting a very jarring experience to the people who are supposed to smoothly trust in their news experience the next time around.

I think it’s important, and the better part of wisdom, to speak in a moral voice about being wrong under conditions like that— not a “shit happens” or a “gimme a break” or a “I don’t see any violation of our procedures…” voice. Even if true, I wouldn’t do anything different next time doesn’t communicate very well about this time.

Moral doesn’t mean moralizing or sky-is-falling. A moral voice need not blow the events out of proportion, either, or give a false mea culpa. It not only explains how the story was gotten wrong, but also accepts that a wrong got done— even if there was no violation of procedure. “The paper is responsible for everything in the paper” (Mike Days) speaks in a moral voice, in the sense that I mean it.

In explaining what happened, some editors primarily addressed themselves to the end user’s experience of a vanished miracle, while others talked of professional standards, rituals and routines. Without meaning to insult anyone, they were treating the journalist’s experience as primary. But under conditions of factual intimacy (“we lived for a while the wrong information you gave us”) that discourse is not up to the task.

“AP was reporting accurately the information that we were provided by credible sources” says: we didn’t do anything wrong. “The paper is responsible for everything in the paper” accepts what happened with end users. Accuracy, which was achieved, is the more technical term, truth, which did not happen, is a moral category. Although there’s no big scandal in it, this one happens to lie very near the center of the trust transaction in journalism, and so it’s foolish for editors to be among its minimizers.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Editor & Publisher continues to report developments on this story. See Spokesman in Miner Tragedy Says He Never Confirmed Miracle Rescue. (Jan. 6) Interesting.

Regret the Error has two good round-ups. One gives links to all the correction and explanation stories newspapers ran; the other re-caps the whole episode. Good places to start.

Serious Questions on Sourcing in Mine ‘Rescue’ Story Remain. Joe Strupp and Greg Mitchell in Editor & Publisher (Jan. 5):

What was most surprising in the many follow-up stories today was how few fresh details were added about sourcing — including any mention of a single new source not already identified. Despite repeated attempts by E&P to reach reporters at the scene, none have yet responded. Here we will provide the first step-by-step chronology from a strictly journalistic perspective. So what do we know, or think we know?

Revealing. Also very good is Joe Strupp, Local W.Va. Paper Says Skepticism Helped it Avoid Mining Story Goof. (Jan. 4) The reporter for the local daily didn’t run to the church to get misinformed.

I did a live Q & A with readers at (Jan. 6). Here it is, The Press: Year in Review. My favorite moment was probably:

Q. I work as a senior IT professional. I make good bank. If I retyped vendor marketing materials and sold my company on an expensive system that ended up failing, I’d get canned. Immediately. I might even get sued for damages, so they would recoup the money paid me. I’d have a black mark next to my name and really lose my career.

Watching “Goodfellas” I realized that the “name” media in this country is much the same. Henry Hill’s speech at the end scores it exactly (the bit about “now I’m just a regular schnook”). Media players are Goodfella, loaded up with money and privilege, and screeching at the first sign of accountability…or being just another “regular schnook”.

Until that is changed, all the rest is just hot air.

A: If your observation is that the news is too often a defective product and standards of workmanship have fallen below what society can reasonably expect, I kinda agree with that. I mean look at Jonathan Klein, head of CNN saying he was perfectly happy with CNN’s coverage of the mining disaster.

Tim Graham of Newsbusters takes issue with some of what I said. Graham says the Bush team has no particular beef with the White House press. The White House has no involvement in the ongoing culture war seeking to discredit Big Journalism as the liberal media, he thinks. In his next post, Tim will explain to us that journalists are some of Bush’s best friends, and W. can’t live without his Paul Krugman.

Look Out “Outlook”. Vaughn Ververs at Public Eye, the CBS press blog, spotted the argument in a statement today from Susan Glasser, 36, the new Sunday Outlook editor at the Washington Post (just announced.)

It’s a promising appointment. Glasser started at The Post in ‘98. She was a deputy national editor and political reporter here, then went to Moscow as a correspondent in 2001. Perhaps the most interesting thing about her: She comes to Outlook after covering terrorism for the Post. In the story announcing her new job she says:

Outlook is one of the great pieces of real estate in the Sunday Washington Post, with a real storied tradition of helping shape the Washington conversation. What I would hope to do is build on that and think of lots of exciting and interesting ways to update it for an Internet era when opinions and controversy have become the currency but reasoned commentary and analysis are sometimes missing from that new digital equation.

Ververs asked me, Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine, Lost Remote’s Steve Safran, and Brian Stetler of TV Newser: what did you think of Glasser’s statement? Responses here.

I like this from Jarvis about the lost miners and the media: “It’s not the news that’s live; it’s the process of figuring out what to believe that’s live.”

If you’re not reading The Blogging Journalist (“Munir Umrani’s Weblog on Blogging by Journalists, Citizen Journalists and Pundits in an Era of Changing Media”) perhaps you should be.

Steve Outing at Poynter: “Here’s what I think newspaper front-page editors should have done last night: Published an info box accompanying the story pointing people to the paper’s website for updates on the story, and acknowledging that as of the time the paper-edition story was printed, the situation was fluid.”

How the LA Times held the presses, and corrected the newspaper.

Joan Vennochi, columnist, Boston Globe:

Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher, blasted off a Wednesday online column that began by describing the incorrect news reports as “one of the most disturbing and disgraceful media performances of this type in recent years.” Later in the day, however, Mitchell deleted the word “disgraceful” — again, one of the luxuries of online journalism versus traditional print.

Blogger Chuck Holton was there:

Be careful, though, trying to pin the blame for this fiasco on the media. There is a difference between spreading a rumor and reporting that a rumor is spreading. Don’t think so? Try to imagine a scenario where live cameras pointing at the church could have avoided showing the jubilation that erupted there when the despicable rumor began that the twelve were alive. To their credit, the live news people, like CNN, simply reported that they were being told that there were survivors, and continued to report when the Governor gave the rumor an implied - if inadvertent - endorsement with his comment that “miracles do happen.”

Murray Waas at Huffington Post:

Anderson Cooper and Geraldo Rivera and Bill O’Reilly we know not to trust, however. They, too, have emotions, but there is a promiscuity, and dare say, even a vulgarity, to their emotions. Their tears and anger are displayed so frequently and shared with so many that in the end they become meaningless. Their television shows will move somewhere else, and the families of the Sago miners will be alone—or finally left alone—to grieve.

Ex-Portland Communique blogger One True B!X at his new site: “In terms newsies will understand: Why did you run — and run hard — with a story based on information from a single anonymous source?” It’s true, as regards the original source of the information that 12 were alive. No one ever had a name.

Hey, check out this Thinker to Watch in 2006. Says Forbes Magazine. Let’s hope their aim is true.

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 5, 2006 12:16 AM