Thursday, January 05, 2006

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: 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.


At 8:25 PM, January 05, 2006, Blogger Eric said...

I thought the most shameful part was how the media immediately sought to blame the officials on the scene for the misreporting of the situation, as though the media was not responsible for the impact of its own mistake.

Since 9/11, we've received a stark lesson of how vulnerable, flawed, manipulatable, yet also how powerful the media is. That's a dangerous mix. The W.Virginia miner story is a relatively benign object illustration of the problem. The media has such a deep impact and is so pervasive and influential, I think our society as a whole is in urgent need to review the role and practice of mass media.

At 2:33 AM, January 06, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

One of the reasons why journalism isn't a business and isn't motivated by profit, regardless of common held beliefs, is because they just don't serve anyone in an accountable way. They aren't sued for emotional damages as a business might have been. Their profits are not made from "scoops" or "exclusives", but from advertising and how many people watch them. The scoops and the exclusives are for prestige, are for image, are for individual self-aggrandizement. Nothing more. And that is the point. They are gimmicks, if news is their service it could be served by flashing a message bar and letting people read it while showing images without narration or anchors. But when the news is more about gimmicks and tricks of the trade, than about sound business practices, then it is less about the customer and more about image.

If a business forgets its purpose and forgets how to accomplish its service to the customers, then it isn't a business. And in a free market, competition would oust them out or force them to be better. The media, because they are not a business, is showing a very strong immunity to need for adaptation. Even with a lot of advertising migrating to the internet and blogs. They aren't learning, they aren't changing, and they certainly aren't firing anyone until after the fact.

For a bunch of writers that I remember kept telling Bush to fire people that embarassed the Presidency or the prestige of the country (Abu Ghraib), the media sure don't follow their own advice very often. With telling results.

At 4:05 AM, January 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Things like this continually shock me in how I accept things. I know better than accept what any of the news media says as true, yet am so conditioned to it I assumed, like most, that when it was reported as true that it was more than just a rumor, that it was confirmed.

*sigh* It's hard to be shocked now when they goof like this, usually I expect that more than not. The sad thing is that even the little trust I place with them (so small that I didn't even realise I hadn't rooted it out) is still being eroded. Everytime I think they can't get anyworse they prove me wrong.

Personally, given how consistently wrong they are on easily verifiable facts why anyone trusts thier analysis and bases thier beliefs on it is beyond me. If an academic paper was wrong that much you wouldn't be allowed to use it as a source for papers.

At 5:46 AM, January 06, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

It is easier to trust a used cars salesman than the media. They sound nice, as do salesmen, and they seem pleasant. But at least cars salesman gets their money from you, and they know it. The media don't remember where they get their money from now.

Fox would be in a better position market wise if their dumb "Media Watch" only watched CNN and CBS and NBC. The watchdog over other cable channels and their excesses. Propaganda only works if there is a chorus and no dissent. THere is a sort of "lag time" between the MSM and checking the blogs, as I've noticed. Any lag time allows false information to sink in subconsciously.


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