When the paper gets it really wrong by fBL207G


									When the paper gets it really wrong
How that "12 miners alive" story from West Virginia wound up in print. Even
knowing how it happened, it still hurts.

Kate Parry, Star Tribune Reader's Representative

The relief I felt reading the paper Wednesday morning, with a headline assuring me the
miners in West Virginia were safe, evaporated when I reached the newsroom and learned
the truth: All but one were dead. The Star Tribune -- along with many other newspapers -
- had a story at the top of the front page that was utterly inaccurate.

Forty-one readers who felt similarly let down called or e-mailed me with unusually sharp
criticism of the newspaper for this. As I tried to explain all the circumstances contributing
to the dreadful error, it became clear that was irrelevant to these readers. They trusted us
and we let them down.

"Take responsibility for your own actions. Put a sign over every writer's and editor's
desk: 'How do I know this story is true?' " wrote Janet Brown, a technical writer in

"Readers get the impression that an actual eyewitness account of 'miners surfacing after
being underground in the cold, damp chamber for 41 hours' is factual when in fact this
couldn't have been further from the truth. Are reporters today all screenwriters or
novelists in training?" asked Amy Rubins, a hotel meeting director from St. Louis Park,
after reading the Washington Post story used by the Star Tribune.

I've gone back over the bulletins and stories that came over the wires that night, trying to
decide what I would have done if I had been the wire editor or reporter. Whether you
view the newspaper as a victim of bad timing or a perpetrator of careless journalism, it's
an exercise that reveals much about how this could have happened.

Picture yourself as a reporter in West Virginia late Tuesday night, camped out in a little
church near the mine with distraught families.

Suddenly, the air is electric with rejoicing. The families are saying rescue workers have
called their cell phones and all but one of the miners are alive. Church bells start ringing
and Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia leaves giving a thumbs up and talking about a
miracle happening. Soon Manchin, two other state officials and a congresswoman
confirm that the miners are safe.

It's almost 11 p.m. here -- nearly midnight in West Virginia. In Minneapolis, presses
started churning out early editions at 10:35 p.m. and the final press run will start about
12:30 a.m. Is the story solid enough to file? Coal company officials refuse to confirm
anything, but they raise no note of caution, either.
Each minute that you don't file a story, thousands more newspapers are being printed
around the country, reporting that no one knows the fate of the miners. It will be 24 hours
before there's another chance to update the printed newspaper. What should you do?

Wire service reporters decided they had enough sources. In Minneapolis, an Associated
Press news alert came over the wire at 10:52 p.m. Editors ripped up the front page to get
the good news in as many newspapers as possible.

An hour passed and no one raised any doubts about the story. In Minneapolis, it neared
12:30 a.m., and the final edition was on the presses. The Star Tribune's wire editors put
on their coats and went home. Online editor Stan Schmidt usually leaves then too, but he
stayed to work on technical issues.

At 1:57 a.m., a stunning AP news alert came across the wire: The families said they'd
now been told all but one of the miners were dead.

Schmidt immediately updated startribune.com. But it was at this point that the Star
Tribune stumbled badly. Although a couple of employees in the building and a couple
more newsroom employees who had gone home and turned on the news realized the story
had changed, no one called top editors at home to ask if they wanted to stop the presses
and remake the paper. Managing editor Scott Gillespie wishes he had gotten that call and
said he would have stopped the presses to get it right in whatever was left of the press
run. The Duluth News-Tribune's editor got the call, stopped its presses and managed to
correct half of the papers. At the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, the story was not corrected.
Even some West Coast newspapers that had two additional hours didn't manage to correct

So where were the Star Tribune's missteps in all of this? I have to admit, if I had been the
wire editor and read the initial story of the miners being safe, quoting sources from a
governor to a congresswoman, I would have published it too.

Reader Michael Cowell, an insurance consultant from Mound, said the refusal of the
mining company to confirm the successful rescue for three hours should have raised red
flags. "You needed to find out where the governor got his information," Cowell wrote.
"Call me old-fashioned at age 33, but I believe that it is better to be late with a correct
story than timely with a wrong one." Even though the Star Tribune had no one on the
scene and was relying on the wires for this story, Cowell wanted editors to have a
reporter in Minneapolis call down to West Virginia looking for confirmation. My
experience as a reporter and editor tells me that would have been futile. Sources in West
Virginia were surrounded by national media and weren't going to put any priority in
returning a phone call to a reporter in Minnesota.

Cowell also wanted an apology from editors and assurances that safeguards were being
put in place for the future.
"I feel lousy that the incorrect story landed on the doorsteps of more than 300,000
readers. It's the worst feeling a managing editor can have," said Gillespie. He has been
analyzing overnight staffing to make sure that between the newsroom and online staffs,
someone will be monitoring the news all night, seven days a week. Right now, there are
two nights -- Tuesday and Wednesday -- when there is a gap in staffing for a few hours
late at night. Gillespie also is reviewing protocol with the staff for calling top editors late
at night when news breaks. He feels proud about the newsroom's late-night response in
recent years to some big stories -- such as the capture of Saddam Hussein -- and is
extremely disappointed that the newspaper faltered this time.

In the end, every journalist needs to remember that no matter how troubled the
circumstances of gathering the news, if we don't get it right, our credibility can crumble
as quickly as a faulty mine shaft.

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