Getting the story straight: misreporting on the miners (and the Munich Massacre)
The sad news of the deaths of the trapped miners is the most important part of this story, not the media problems inherent in its reporting. My heart goes out to the families and friends of the miners. Mining (like commercial fishing in my part of the world) is an inherently dangerous activity, and all who work in the field are inherently brave, as are their families.
But the media issues are still of importance. By now just about everyone is familiar with the fact that an error was made by the media in reporting the twelve trapped West Virginia miners as rescued and safe, when in fact the tragic truth was that they had died. The mistaken reporting was quite widespread, and seems to have been the result of a combination of wishful thinking and the reporting of rumor without careful and insistent disclaimers to that effect.
Here was someone from one paper, at least, who didn't jump the gun on this story (via Antimedia). How is it that this editor avoided the pitfalls into which the others fell? It's pretty simple; she waited for an official announcement:
"I feel lucky that we are an afternoon paper and we have the staff that we do," said editor Linda Skidmore, who has run the 21-person newsroom for three years. "We had a reporter there all night at the scene and I was on the phone with her the whole time."
Skidmore adds that her staff never believed the miners had been found alive because no official word was ever given. She said no update about miners being found alive ever appeared on the paper's Web site, either.
"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."
Another editor, Sherry Chisenhall of the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, didn't get it right. But she didn't mince words, and for that I respect her:
...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."
So, what happened? It seems that "sources" said the miners were alive, but who those sources were and what information they were relying on is still unclear. One thing is clear: there was no official announcement by those in charge of rescue operations, and the AP was heavily involved in pushing the premature story into many newspapers via the wire service.
The failure appears to have been one of attribution:
Certainly we should do our professional best to give readers, listeners and viewers substantive and specific attribution in our stories. Attribution supports both accuracy and authenticity. Ideally, strong and clear attribution heightens the credibility of the stories.
To be sure, the attribution within stories is reflective of the rigor of the newsgathering process. As reporters, we should be respectfully pushing our sources by asking, "How do you know that?" As editors and producers, we should be prosecuting the reporters' work, asking, "Do we have a high level of confidence in that information? Is it verifiable?"
It appears that no one was really asking those questions. Maybe it's only human to want the story to be a happy one, especially when families are rejoicing and citing a miracle. It would take a curmudgeon to question whether the information on which they were relying was true. But reporters are supposed to be skeptics who do not report rumors, and if they do choose to report them, they need to label them as such.
The Anchoress has a thoughtful discussion, relating this to press mistakes during Katrina.
This article is the best description of the confusion; it is itself confused and confusing.
Michelle Malkin has a thorough rundown.
A further note: when I first heard that the miners were alive, I felt joy and relief. Like so many, I felt especially letdown when the later corrected reports came through with the news that they had died. It sparked a memory in me, one I haven't seen anyone else mention, but on a topic that's been much in the news lately because of Spielberg's movie "Munich"--the Munich Olympics massacre of the Israeli athletes.
Those of you who, like me, are of a certain age, may recall that when the shootout and botched rescue attempt occurred at the airport the first reports--widely disseminated--were that all the athletes were safe. Then, just a few hours later, the news was reversed.
Do you remember? I do, only too well. It was exquisitely painful, and the pain was somehow even greater because of the initial false reports. How did they get it so wrong back then? I've never read an explanation; if anyone has one, please feel free to offer it. But the entire operation was so mishandled by the German government that it's no real surprise that the reporting on what happened was mishandled, too.
This, from Wikipedia, is the only reference I've been able to find so far to the misleading news from Munich:
Initial news reports, published all over the world, indicated that all the hostages were alive, and that all the terrorists had been killed. Only later did a representative for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suggest that "initial reports were overly optimistic."
I well remember the sorrow and bitterness in Jim McKay's voice and on his face when he made the later, corrected, announcement:
Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They've now said that there were 11 hostages; 2 were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, 9 were killed at the airport tonight. They're all gone.
"They're all gone." Sad words then, sad words today, although the situations behind the deaths are so different.