MEDIA News outlets scrambled to rectify reports Initially, many newspapers, TV and radio stations used false information that 12 miners survived BY NICK MADIGAN SUN REPORTER ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JANUARY 5, 2006 It was another bruising episode for the news media, but this time caused not by scandalous behavior but by simple human error: Dozens of newspapers and television and radio stations reported late Tuesday and early yesterday that 12 trapped miners in a West Virginia coal mine had been found alive, only to learn later that the report was tragically wrong. "There's no getting around the fact that the news media published a falsehood here," Jane E. Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said yesterday. "It's regrettable, but the sequence of events was such that I'm not sure it could have been avoided," she said. "I'm sure there's plenty of blame to go around, but given the breaking nature of this story and circumstances, I don't think this is the greatest journalistic sin of 2006." How the erroneous information was provided to the miners' families is unclear. Townspeople in a church that had become a gathering place for family members say they were told that the 12 miners had been found alive. Mining company officials said they did not release that information, but it apparently came from someone who overheard a call to the command center from the rescue team. The news was then confirmed for reporters shortly after midnight by the West Virginia governor, Joe Manchin III, according to the Associated Press. Cable news networks instantly went live with the news, describing jubilant family members streaming from Sago Baptist Church, a half-mile from the mine, firmly believing that all but one of the miners had made it. Inexplicably, officials did not correct the news for about three hours, by which time hundreds of newspapers east of the Mississippi, and in some cases west of it, had shut down their presses for the night. Those who had time changed their stories and their headlines to reflect the grim update, but thousands of copies of morning papers around the country bore exultant headlines about the 12 survivors at the Sago Mine. The St. Petersburg Times, The Indianapolis Star, The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., and the New York Daily News, among others, ran variations on "They're Alive!" At The Kansas City Star, editors were able to run the corrected story only in about 10 percent of the paper's press run. Derek Donovan, the readers' representative at the Star, said in an e-mail that staff members had "pulled more than 20 thousand papers from trucks and loading docks" before they were delivered with the wrong story. The final, corrected story hit the Star's Web site at about 2:50 a.m. local time, though wire bulletins had been posted earlier. The New York Times, which in early editions ran a headline about the one confirmed death - "Miner's Body Found; Search Continues for Others" - updated its report in later editions: "12 Miners Found Alive 41 Hours After Explosion." The Washington Post treated the story in similar fashion, with an early headline - "One Body is Found in W.Va. Coal Mine" - followed by a story that said the dozen miners had been "found alive" after being "trapped 12,000 feet into a mountainside since early Monday." The Chicago Tribune remade its early front page to reflect the tragic reversal, from "12 Miners Saved" to "Mine Rescue Tragedy" with a sub-headline that said, "After initial reports, 12 of 13 W.Va. coal miners confirmed dead." Some papers hedged their bets, attributing their headlines to relatives or using qualifiers - The Boston Globe wrote: "12 Miners Reportedly Found Alive." At The Sun, a three-column headline above the fold said, "12 Coal Miners Alive in W.Va., Families Say." National Editor Marcia Myers said she and the copy editor who wrote the headline, Mike Levene, had agreed that the headline should include the attribution as a safety net. "We had families saying the miners were alive," Myers said. "That's what we were told, and it was out everywhere on the wires, on TV." As soon as the newspapers discovered they had been wrong, which in many cases was when their staffs showed up for work yesterday morning, most of them immediately corrected their stories on their Web sites. The misinformation about the miners' fate was compounded by the lateness of the hour, said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. When the news broke that the miners had been saved, he said, editors had little choice but to report it. "I cannot imagine any news entities that would not have gone with this," he said. "All these newspapers were probably saying, 'We've got to get this out if we're going to get this thing on people's doorsteps,'" Thompson said. "They finally get a piece of information, it's a great story, from a pretty good source, but there was no time to let this play out. They were already past deadline, and that's where you get the 'Dewey Defeats Truman' effect." That was the incorrect headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune on Nov. 3, 1948, a journalistic blooper made famous by an AP photograph of the newly re-elected President Harry S. Truman gleefully holding up a copy of the paper. Another presidential election, in 2000, provided fodder for a bizarre series of media errors. Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore each thought he had won the presidency, confusing millions of television viewers. The emergence yesterday morning of the erroneous stories from West Virginia was "tangible evidence of the mess journalists trudge through in the pursuit of truth," Alan English, executive editor of The Times of Shreveport, La., wrote in an e-mail message after its print edition had carried the news of the supposed survivors. Its headline: "12 Miners Found Alive." "When reliable sources work from bad information, it takes time and hard work to uncover the real story," English wrote. "On deadline, time is something you don't have. Then it is ink on paper and you are done. The misinformation that was hope last night and tragedy this morning is further evidence of just how elusive the truth can be and how fallible we all are." On his newspaper's Web site yesterday morning, English posted a note that acknowledged the story the paper ran was "about as wrong as any could be." "Today, communities across the country stare at a wishful headline, now knowing it is a nightmare," he wrote. "I wish I could call back all of the editions with the mistaken headline." To Readers: Late editions of yesterday's Sun included coverage of late-breaking developments in the West Virginia mine accident, including reports that a dozen miners had survived. Because these events were unfolding on deadline and the paper was unable to obtain official confirmation of the miners' fate, efforts were made to carefully qualify the developing news in both the story and headlines. Press deadlines required stories to be moved before 2 a.m., and the press run was just finishing when official word came around 3 a.m. that 12 miners had died. Afterward, the staff continued to gather information, posting early morning updates on The Sun's Web site.
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