sago mine disaster/ media flubbub

Hi all. I am back at my Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Here is the full account of what happened with the whole “miner’s alive” flub. I’ve made a few minor edits to my earlier draft. I’ll just try to tell you what happened from my perspective.

newspapers on mine miracleIt was closing in on midnight Tuesday night. My photographer Todd and I had slept in our rented SUV, grabbing about three hours sleep, in case the miners were rescued or found dead overnight. I had figured they were dead ever since I heard Monday night that there was no debris boxing in the miners. I figured this would end badly. My photographer, Todd Maisel, was getting rather cranky and wanted to call it a night. I had permission to leave from my editor, but still felt uneasy about it. But I heard that the rescuers had exhausted their air supply and were pulling out for a few hours. I made arrangements with a friendly reporter to call me if anything went down, then figured to grab a few hours of shut-eye. At this point we had been working since about 7 a.m.

As we started to pull out of a neighbor’s muddy front yard turned into a media parking lot, Todd stopped me. What’s that sound, he asked. It was the tolling of church bells. We have to check this out! he says. Of course.

Getting out of the SUV, things are happening. A portly man runs by me, on his way to the CNN compound. Tears are in his eyes. They’re alive! They’re all alive! he yells at me.

Huh? I start sprinting toward the church. The state police who had kept us back earlier make no attempt to do so now. It is happy chaos at the Sago Baptist Church. Gov. Joe Manchin makes his way to his car, making no effort to stem the celebration. I try to get in a question, but he’s getting swarmed by the press. I don’t hear it, but apparently he tells a reporter from his car windows that “yes, miracles do happen.”

celebrating families
Anna McCloy is so joyful, so thankful the father of her two kids is alive. “Oh, my God, oh, my God,” she tells me. “They’re alive. I can’t believe it. They’re alive.” She has tears in her eyes and gives Baltimore Sun reporter a big hug. Raymond Weaver is sad about the one miner who perished, but happy about his brother Jerry and the rest of the men.

“You know,” he tells me, “none of us gave up hope. We had our down moments, but we never gave up hope.”

I quickly call my editor with the update. It is past deadline; papers are already rolling off the presses. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember telling her, “you should run with this!” And I remember the joy in my voice. She’s been watching the scene on TV and sounds equally happy as she tells me, “We’re going to!”

Todd has tears in his eyes, too. Can you believe we almost missed this, he asks. No, I tell him. People are singing hymns and praising the Lord.

This is going to be a scene I remember for the rest of my life, I think. Right up there when the reporters onboard a ferry in front of the Statute of Liberty put aside our collective cynicism to sing “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” with a teenager, holding the Olympic flame, who had lost his father in the World Trade Center a few weeks after 9/11. Why hadn’t I held onto hope, I asked myself, resolving to be less cynical in future.

I get a few more quotes. Geraldo Rivera is there, butting in on interviews. He’s working by cell phone and stands so close to his subjects it looks almost like a lover’s embrace. Amid the celebration, I find my friend Alexa Fleming with People magazine. We’re both thinking the same thing: we need to find Nick and Amber Helms, the children of Terry Helms, the only miner to die. They seemed like the most decent, wholesome kids you can possibly imagine … amid all the celebration, we didn’t want their grief to go unrecorded. We don’t find them, but I do track down Michelle Mauser, Terry’s niece.

Eventually the state police shoo us back down the hill. Todd drives off to send his photos at a WiFi hot spot downtown. An ambulance drives off with the first survivor. I join other reporters huddled around a fire for warmth. (THANK GOD for the Red Cross).

donut shop sign: 'healing is hard'Geraldo is there, as is Chris Cuomo, co-anchor of ABC’s Primetime Live. Chris, who hasn’t yet had to file a report, is uneasy about how this is being reported. How would you do it, I ask. He says he’d be clear this is information from the families, that authorities hadn’t confirmed it. I don’t have any such qualms. And how could you run video of that celebration without leaving a clear impression in people’s minds, that these miners were all alive?

(As a side note: I have an anti-authoritarian streak a mile long. I don’t believe in waiting until “the authorities,” give my stories some magic stamp of approval by saying “this story has been Officially Confirmed.” That just makes the media another government cog. As we saw during Katrina, the authorities can be just as wrong as anyone else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and often government officials can be more neutral and knowledgeable than others. But they’re all only human, with their own motives, just like everyone else).

On the road, we can see a queue ambulances waiting to transport the other survivors. (“When I went through the gates [of the mine] they told me of 12 survivors,” the local fire chief, Joe Tallman, told me hours later. “I’m running around trying to get 12 ambulances lined up.”) The cops have completely blocked off the local road so the ambulances will have a clear shot. We’re blocked in, and Todd is blocked out.

I lean into the fire we’re huddled around and make a little joke. “Y’know … if we don’t make it out of here alive,” I say solemnly, “I just want to say … I love you guys!” My last four words are shrill, and I hug the reporter sitting next to me. It did seem a little like something out of a horror movie, the out-of-towners trapped and sitting around a fire in rural West Virginia. But some people think I’m actually mocking Geraldo Rivera and his emotive interviewing techniques to his face. Geraldo comes around the fire and pretend-bonks me on the head with his microphone. “Awww, shuddup.”

sago mine headquartersAnother reporter remarks to me about how annoying it is that the mining company hasn’t come down to give us an official update. But I’m more concerned with catching something from the miners as they came out. Caught up in the initial celebration, some of us even believed the families when they said the miners would stop by the church before being brought to the hospital. But we quickly realize that’d be silly, these men must be in rough shape and are heading straight to the hospital.

Todd calls. He had trailed the ambulance to the hospital and almost made a shot of the miner being carted out, only to be swarmed by police at the last minute. But doctors give an update: the man is in critical condition. Yikes, this might not be as happy and ending as it seemed an hour ago.

And where are the other miners, we wonder? It must be 2 a.m. or so by now, about two hours since the families first got their update. They are probably being treated and triaged at the scene, we figure.

As it gets later and later, we’re realizing something is wrong. But I don’t think any of us ever thought the other 11 miners were dead. I certainly didn’t. (Alexa tells me later that “not for a minute” did she think the miners might be dead. “Not even for a minute. How could you make a mistake like that [telling the families their loved ones were alive]? How could that happen?”)

I’m snooping around when I get a phone call from Bob Shields on the News Desk around 2:47 a.m. (I never deal with the News Desk, they handle layout and story placement, but usually just interact with my editors. All the editors have gone home by now, though). He tells me that CNN is saying that the other 11 miners are dead. I can’t believe it. I feel totally blindsided. I tell Shields I’ll call him back.

Some families are trudging down the hill from the church, their heads low. The first won’t talk to me. I fall in step with an elderly couple and ask them what they know.

i'm in the green poncho
“They told us they are all alive,” she tells me, “and then they’re all dead.” I ask a few more questions, but they don’t reply. Just too upset. I wouldn’t be badgering anyone in this much grief normally, but jeez, I need to know this right now. The man is kicking up mud at the camera crews filming them. I fall a step back and pull out my cell phone. CNN’s Randi Kaye steps in front of me and asks a few more questions, which they also ignore. (For whatever reason, this footage — the sad family trudging down the hill, trailed by a reporter with a receding hairline in a green poncho (i.e., me) — seems to have become CNN’s signature video for this story, I’ve seen myself on TV dozens of times)

I call Shields again with the update. They’re going to stop the presses and replate. Relatives, sad beyond belief, are telling me this is the worst thing they’ve ever witnessed. “This was worse than you could ever imagine,” says Nick Helms, the 25-year-old son of dead miner Terry Helms.

I spot ABC’s Chris Cuomo amid all the chaos. Well, you were right, I tell him. Yeah, he replies. But I really wish I hadn’t been.

At a hastily convened press conference, reporters are grilling Gov. Manchin. I’m ducking out perodically to feed quotes to Veronika Belenkaya, a former intern who was hired some months ago to work the overnight shift. I make each phone call short short short, because it sounds like she’s typing like a madwoman. I wasn’t there, but I assume that she, Shields and a few others just worked their asses off in a short period of time to totally redo the paper.

different daily newses
Getting the story wrong in the first place is nothing to be proud of … but over 160,000 copies of the “Shock” edition were printed, a much better record than our competitors.

muddy shoesAfter the presser, I headed back to the church. There was just media left. Not much more to do. I look at my watch. 6 a.m. Todd and I still have a 40-minute drive to our motel/hotel in Clarksburg — what happens when you don’t book a place immediately and news crews from around the country are descending on a small town. But somehow I manage to keep my eyes open long enough to find our hotel with out an accident. My dress shoes are caked with mud. My jeans are specked with mud up to the knees. After wearing them for two days straight, I nearly have to peel them off. It’s 7 a.m. by the time I hit the sack.

My editor calls me less than three hours later.

* * * * *

Driving around the West Virginia later that day, Todd and I hear Rush Limbaugh bashing the press for getting the story wrong. Later, I hear that Joe Strupp and Greg Mitchell have written a critical story for Editor & Publisher. I decide I’m going to write about it on my blog. In a few spare moments, I interview couple of the other reporters who were there to get their perspective.

“Obviously, I reported the quote ‘fact’ that the miners were alive,” Jon Hurdle of Reuters tells me. “I attributed that to one of the family members, and I imagine that person was named in the story, I’m sure there were. As the evening wore on, my editor was on the phone saying that this wasn’t confirmed, we really need that. And of course that was never forthcoming.”

Was this a black eye for the media? “Oh no, not at all,” Hurdle says. “We had — perhaps not every reason — but there was no reason to doubt at that moment that the families had the correct information. In hindsight, saying ‘well hold off on this, that 200 people are yelling and screaming and saying praise the Lord in the middle of the night, and treat it as all unconfirmed and hold it until we get it from an official source’ … under the circumstances, I think that the media could be forgiven for being fairly confident that these people had the right information.”

“Ideally, what people should have done is written a lede that says family members say mine officials have told them this, but there’s no confirmation and we’re waiting for it,” NPR labor reporter Frank Langfitt tells me. But it’s not easy to get all that into a lede or a headline, he adds.

“Reporter were tired, and print reporters, who were burned the worst, were up against very tight deadlines and had to write on very short notice,” says Langfitt, who worked at the Baltimore Sun for a dozen years. “They were under tremendous pressure. It’s too simple to say this was a case of the media being sloppy or loose. Reporters should have hedged their ledes, but I’m a radio reporter, I did not report on this ’til 5 a.m., I feel lucky.

“I hope I would have hedged it,” if he had to report on this sooner, Langfitt tells me. “I hope I would have.”

People magazine was only a hours from printing a story saying 12 of the miners had survived, Alexa tells me. “It had to be completely done over, obviously.”

I ask her if this is a black eye for the press. “I don’t,” she replies. “Maybe I should, but I don’t. In the circumstances … it was hysteria. People were going nuts. It was like a riot almost, without the violence. Obviously, we were caught up in it. Did we ever get offered the governor coming out and making a statement? Nobody offered that.”

* * * * *

01-05-06_1121.jpgFive days later, I sit here typing this and think about lessons learned. Lesson one: WTF was I thinking, about to leave the scene like that at midnight? C’mon Rose. Lesson two: when covering huge breaking news stories in small towns, book your hotel earlier rather than later. Duh.

But as getting the dead/alive story wrong? Hmm. I’ll certainly be a bit more careful the next time I cover trapped miners and sumbariners. But beyond that, I’m not sure what kind of lesson there is for me here. Perhaps I should simply have been more skeptical. It would simply have been absolutely incredible for 11 men to have survived in that mine for 41 hours, given the lethal levels of carbon monoxide present.

Looking back, I think we all did get caught up in the euphoria of the celebration, as Alexa told me. Perhaps we just put aside our natural skepticism for a bit.

But put aside journalism for a second … what kind of human beings would we be if we didn’t get overjoyed about the rescue of a dozen miners?

46 comments to sago mine disaster/ media flubbub

  • CL

    If you’d held the story because they might be dead, then people would say, “Oh, look at how the media always focuses on the negative, the blood and gore.” Rush Limbaugh hasn’t ever had to do any real journalism. Maybe he should come with you next time and see what it’s like.

  • Definitely a surreal experience from our end. You got the scene just right … really sensitive writing and honest commentary. (If I could just add that in his zeal, Geraldo actually shoved me out of the way to get at a family member.)

    I really don’t know what we could’ve done differently. Demanded official confirmation as a collective body? Riiiiiiight.

  • Anthony Moretti

    Mr. Rose,

    Your first-person account of what happened in those chaotic 2-3 hours is excellent. I do agree that those of us in either the professional or academic world who were not in West Virginia have a much different perspective of what took place (or should have taken place) in that time frame when compared to those of you who were in the middle of it all. Perhaps the absence of the emotion makes it easier (or more difficult?) for us to explain why we think certain questions should have been asked. I very much would like to continue this discussion with you…and I have a request: I am thinking about putting together a panel to discuss the coverage of the mining tragedy. Would you like to be invited? I also will add your account to my blog.

    Thank you,
    Anthony Moretti

  • Thanks for this detailed account. This whole media fiasco reminded me of the much bigger media fiasco surrounding the Johnstown Flood. I just finished David McCullough’s excellent book on that 1889 disaster, and highly recommend it. Reporters then got many, many details wrong, as did historians. Just goes to show how difficult it tis to make sense of a chaotic situation under a tight deadline. Thanks for trying.

  • Linda Hervieux

    Good job, Derek. Nobody knows how hard it is to work breaking news scenes except those few journalists hardy enough to take on those assignments. You made it a little clearer. And your news desk deserves kudos for ripping up the paper in the middle of the night to get the story right.

  • themofo

    1) Anyone who bashes the media for ‘getting the story wrong’ is full of horseshit and doesn’t know how the media works. When people erupt in joy and start shouting ‘they’re alive!’ that is news. When they later say ‘they’re dead!’ that is also news. You reported the news correctly every step of the way.

    2) This may be crass, but I do find it offensive when people like to cooperate with the media when the news is good and then hate us when it’s bad. People who were happy to share their thoughts when we believed the miners were alive, then refused to talk and attacked the media when the miners were dead– those people are just jerks, even in times of grief.

  • nicetoadmit

    Nice to admit that you were thinking of leaving the scene of the biggest story in the county. Nice.

  • Err, not as nice as you, leaving an anonymous comment like that on your co-worker’s blog. What a jerk. Did you not realize that I track IP addresses?

    P.S. Oh, and you misspelled “country.”

  • Old Guy

    Derek, I thought considering everything, we (the Daily News and the media at large) did a decent job on the mine disaster and its conclusion. I haven’t taken the time to reread the various versions of the story on the final night and subsequent days, but I’m confident that they add up to the truth of what happened: big celebration of miners being found alive; big tragic realization that miners were actually dead; attempts to explain how the miscommunications occurred. I believe any reasonable reader knowing all the facts will place the blame where it really belongs — and not, for once, on the media. This was not a case of lazy or incompetent reporting, writing or editing. At this point, I don’t believe any reader fails to comprehend the reality of what happened vis-a-vis the reporting on the story, and I can’t imagine that any reasonable person blames the media. The average person was probably hoping that the miners would be found alive, and probably felt terribly upset upon learning of their deaths. If some people allowed those feelings to metamorphose into anger at the media, it’s their problem, not ours.

  • I can’t imagine that any reasonable person blames the media.

    Ummm, maybe. There are certainly a lot of people who did blame the media, and I don’t want to get into a name-calling debate over whether their views are reasonable. Check out this comment thread on Jeff Jarvis’ Buzzmachine, this post by the usually reasonable John Cole, or the E&P story.

    It seems like more people focused on the media’s error than the the mine company’s. And very few indeed (that I read) paid attention to the possible safety violations in the mine, although if this was lightning it’s hard to say if that played any role.

  • Well, since this appears to be a lovefest of media types celebrating how they did nothing wrong, let me throw a wet blanket on y’all. (Hi, Derek. I thought your blogpost was quite well done and conveyed a great deal of what was going on that night and why the story went so wrong. I enjoyed reading about what you did and you made me feel like I was there with you. Very well written.)

    The rest of this is directed at “the media”, not Derek, although Derek might learn something too, who knows.

    Who was trying to rescue them? The mining company and the rescue workers.

    What would the people in the church know about what’s going on? Nothing but second-hand information.

    Where were the miners? Trapped in the mine.

    When would the truth be known about the miners? When they came out of the mine. (Derek’s sixth sense told him that, but his euphoria masked his reporter’s instincts.)

    How should a reporter have covered the story? By camping out at the mine and watching everything that went on there. After all, that’s where the story was.

    The townspeople and loved ones were a tangential human interest story. The mine disaster was the story. There’s nothing wrong with interviewing the loved ones to get their reactions, background on the men that were trapped, etc., etc. But they were not the news. The trapped miners were.

    Who in the media was watching the miners? Apparently no one.

    In the military, when something goes wrong, we study the after action reports carefully to determine where the mistakes were made and what differences in procedures can prevent a reoccurance. In my present work we do the same thing. One of the important things to take away from any failure is lessons learned.

    Apparently, in the media, you go into defensive mode as soon as a failure occurs and then take on all comers shouting, “Don’t blame the messenger. Our sources were wrong.”

    Well, no. You were asking the wrong sources. The local newspaper got the story right.

    Derek at least took some lessons learned from the experience; book your hotel earlier, never assume the story won’t break soon and be careful with early reports, they’re often wrong.

    What have the rest of you learned? It seems not much.

    To themofo – you’re right. You were incredibly crass. You never even realized that the very people you are criticizing felt betrayed and lied to and felt that way in the middle of realizing they had just lost a loved one. That you have the gall to criticize them says much more about you, than it does about them.

    To Old Guy, perhaps you can imagine it now? I believe I’m pretty reasonable. Perhaps you don’t. I think Derek does (we’ve had many interactions), but he can speak for himself.

  • Derek:
    Interesting to read all of the comments. I’ve spent the past week beating myself up over our coverage of the mine disaster here at The Columbus Dispatch. I was the editor on duty back at the office in Ohio that night; we had one reporter and photographer in West Virginia.
    When our reporter heard, at 10 minutes before midnight (midnight is our deadline for the first run of the paper) that the miners were alive, we worked our butts off to rewrite the story entirely, holding the presses for a half-hour to get it in. Our reporter was running from place to place. She was covered in mud and wet from rain. (and running into Geraldo!) And, like you, operating on about two hours of sleep after spending Monday night sleeping in the car.
    I was so proud when we got that first story in. Then we reworked it with fresh quotes from families and had a much more comprehensive story by 1:30 a.m. for the second run.
    I left the office just before 2 a.m., feeling satisfied that we’d done an excellent job.
    When I found out early in the morning that the miners had died, I felt physically sick. I couldn’t believe the families had gone through that. I couldn’t believe our front page was so wrong. I wondered if I still had a job.
    Our reporter had called the managing editor’s home with news of the deaths. By then, our newspapers were being loaded onto trucks. We couldn’t fix it.
    Others on this blog and with other journalism web sites have said that editors back at the office needed to ask tough questions of the reporters at the scene.
    Really? What would I have asked that I didn’t? When she told me the men were alive (as I could hear the church bells ringing and people cheering in the background), I asked immediately, “who told the families? who confirmed it?”
    Our reporter had spoken directly to the governor. He had confirmed it. And it could be argued now that he was only caught up in the emotions himself and really didn’t know for sure. But I typically consider the governor of a state a solid source for information.
    And would I have been a better editor to tell our reporter that we’re NOT going with that information because no one at the mine-rescue site was talking to the press. And, if the men had been alive, we would not have had that information?
    With the information that we had at hand – and with less than a half-hour to get a story in the newspaper – we did the best we could. Sometimes, unfortunately, the best isn’t enough.
    But it’s what we can do at the time.

  • I wonder if the real blame for this incident doesn’t fall on a deeper and more insidious factor, say … the intense pressure the media is under these days to provide the greedy public with instantaneous information? After all, this isn’t the first time that unconfirmed information went to press and then turned out to be completely wrong. Seems to me the press must pander to this force, resulting in the constant media circus that surrounds anything deemed even remotely newsworthy. Then, when believable misinformation starts to get thrown into a volatile mix of stress, exhaustion, and pressure to perform…well, an event like this is bound to happen. The question is: how can a repeat be avoided?

  • cris, who is responsible for the “intense pressure”? The public? Is the public really screaming for 10,000 reporters to descend on Michael Jackson and tell us what underpants he’s wearing when he goes to trial? Does anyone outside California really give a hoot of Laci Peterson’s husband killed her or not? Was that really worth every media outlet in the entire country spending scarce dollars on? Somehow I think not.

    I think Derek points to part of the problem in his post. It’s a herd mentality. Why, for example, was Geraldo there? What possible service could he provide that couldn’t have been done by a less expensive reporter?

    When the church bells rang, everybody ran to the church bells. It’s a natural reaction. But it was only natural because that’s where everybody was. No one was watching the mine. Yet that’s where the story was.

    Lessons learned could begin with these:
    1) Mine disasters never end quickly. Prepare for a long stay and plan sensible rest periods. Think through how you’re going to eat, rest, stay on top of the story.
    2) Pay attention the story, not the distractions. The story was the trapped miners, yet everyone was watching the families and the media circus surrounding them. All eyes were looking in the wrong direction.
    3) Partner with another media person (photographer? competing reporter?) and alternate taking naps.
    4) Official confirmation means “eyes on” the story, not ten other reporters confirming what no one has really confirmed. In this case, it would mean eyeballing the miners as they were brought out of the mine. When Derek saw the first one, he knew immediately that something wasn’t right.
    5) I don’t know is an acceptable report. Deadlines be damned.

  • Scott Butki

    Great reflection/recollection of what happened, Derek. I just added it to a media column I submitted to blogcritics. I’ll post a link when it’s published.

    I wrote a column last week guessing – correctly as you too point out – that the media would be blamed for getting this wrong.
    I was proven right within hours with this piece

  • Antimedia wrote,

    How should a reporter have covered the story? By camping out at the mine and watching everything that went on there. After all, that’s where the story was.

    Well … it just wasn’t that easy. Most of the media was camped out at the intersection of Sago Road and I think Gould-Sago Road. The church was just up the road a bit. The mine headquarters was two miles down the road — that’s where the briefings were held with the mine officials, but they were only there for the briefings. Other times those officials were elsewhere.

    The mine itself was about half a mile away from that intersection, across a bridge. There were state police troopers keeping us from crossing that bridge. At one point, Todd and I did try to find another way to the mine … but again, we were turned away by the cops.

    We might have been able to sneak through the woods, sure. But even then, the entire mine was surrounded by a tall chain-link metal fence. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to climb it.

    (P.S. Don’t confuse the mine and the mine headquarters, where the briefings were given out and where TV reporters did their live shots. I have a photo of the mine HQ here; I’m sure you’ll recognize it if you watched TV. But the mine itself is a mile or three from “headquarters.”)

  • Hey Brenda, thanks for the comment. I guess all I can say is … we all made the same mistake.

  • “cris, who is responsible for the “intense pressure”? The public? Is the public really screaming for 10,000 reporters to descend on Michael Jackson and tell us what underpants he’s wearing when he goes to trial? Does anyone outside California really give a hoot of Laci Peterson’s husband killed her or not? Was that really worth every media outlet in the entire country spending scarce dollars on? Somehow I think not.”

    Antimedia, I would love to agree with you, but unfortunately, I think you’re dead wrong. Now, I’m not a member of the press, nor do I work in an industry even tangentially related to it, so those who do may refute what I am about to say (and I’d welcome it with open arms), but here goes anyway:

    No matter how you look at it the newspaper business is just that: a business. While the broad overreaching goal may be to inform the public on the important issues of the day, circulation numbers matter. Money making matters. And like it or not, the public is the entity that drives it all. To you and me, the Jackson and Peterson trials were insignificant (I’ll never understand why some of these trails become so big. I mean thousands of people are murdered every year, why do some become big stories and others don’t?) but to hundreds of thousands of people across the country it was intensely interesting. Do you really think the media would have continued reporting on it in such a big way if it wasn’t selling papers? Or if people were flipping the channel to other things when it was reported on television? No, of course they wouldn’t have.

    That’s not to say it doesn’t depress me.

  • themofo

    Antimedia wrote:

    “To themofo – you’re right. You were incredibly crass. You never even realized that the very people you are criticizing felt betrayed and lied to and felt that way in the middle of realizing they had just lost a loved one. That you have the gall to criticize them says much more about you, than it does about them.”

    Oh, spare us the sanctimony, antimedia– I’ve done the same ‘sobbing survivor’ interviews many times in my career, and I’m well aware of the pain that these people are experiencing at the moment. That’s why I stand there and let them be jerks rather than call them on it. But it’s a sad statement about this country when they only think the media is right and accurate and helpful when the story dwells on triumph or nobility or virtue, and a bunch of inaccurate, intrusive gorehounds when the story involves loss and pain.

    And you’ll notice I didn’t specifically mention miner family members in my original post, who should be treated with circumpsection; I said people as a whole, many of whom have a peripheral connection to the tragedy at best. Talking to the media won’t put them in therapy. Reporters are people too, and the plain truth is that every single one of them has, at some point or another, felt the same annoyance that I just outlined. Live with it.

  • Flamarkel

    Great firsthand insight. The interesting thing in all of these responses is the pervasive characterization of “the media” as one being. “The media” is, of course, made up of individuals and organizations with different interests and motivations and pressures. For print, immediacy will forevermore be a pressure, since pagination, print and delivery take hours, vs. minutes to publish on the Web or broadcast on television, leading to an unfair playing field. I agree that the fact that families and government officials were saying the miners were alive is news and worth reporting. And when it became clear they weren’t alive, that, too, was news. But in the rush to accommodate immediacy, all would agree it should have been made a little more clear that reports were unsubstantiated by anyone with direct access to the “survivors.”

  • Jay Rosen has a good post on this here.

  • Scott Butki

    My only question reading it was “Who is Alexa?”

  • Scott Butki

    Oh and right after I posted that the link to the column where I mention your blog was posted.

  • Alexa Fleming with People magazine … I identified her in the 10th paragraph, but maybe should have reintroduced her later in the story.

  • CL

    Were the people on the scene of the disaster rejoicing because of what they’d read in the papers? No. They got that info from somewhere OTHER than the media. And THEN it got to the media. So someone else is to blame for starting it.

    >>>When would the truth be known about the miners? When they came out of the mine. (Derek’s sixth sense told him that, but his euphoria masked his reporter’s instincts.)

    So whom should he have gone to for the truth? Who was available?

    >>How should a reporter have covered the story? By camping out at the mine and watching everything

    Yeah, they alllllways let reporters camp out right on top of search and rescue sights. Sure.

    >>>Nice to admit that you were thinking of leaving the scene of the biggest story in the county. Nice.

    Reporters who don’t get any sleep can’t report. Do you think he shouldn’t have gone to the bathroom, either?

    As for the anti-media comments, as I’ve said before and will say again, the media tries its best to get information, but in the end, sometimes they are left to rely on what the officials tell them.

    I know that on a local level, police departments sometimes have a public information officer whose job it is to tell the media what’s going on. But some don’t. And when they don’t, very little information gets out. Or very specific information gets out.

  • Scott Butki

    No, Derek, that’s probably my fault for reading this and blogging at 1 a.m.

  • Scott Butki

    FYI – There’s a good piece about how NPR handled – or mishandled – the story. It is here.

  • Derek, I’m sure you couldn’t have gotten close to the mine, but you could certainly use binoculars to monitor the comings and goings. The point is, you’ll know the truth when the miners come out. If they’re on stretchers, and the ambulances are taking off with lights and siren, there’s a good chance they’re still alive. If they come out on stretchers and nobody seems to be rushing, that’s a tipoff too.

    The point is, the earliest indication of what’s really going on is what’s coming out of the mine. I do recall seeing shots of the mine’s entrance, so it was obviously possible to get close enough to see the activity there.

    I agree that the families celebrating was news, but the news should have been, the families are celebrating, they’re claiming that 12 are alive, but we have no official word yet and I haven’t seen any miners being brought out of the mine. I don’t know how they got the news. That might have at least given some editors pause.

    But because everybody was looking the other way, the story was false. Now you can blame whoever first put the word out. Or you can claim that you did nothing wrong because “both” stories were news. But the fact is false information was printed on the front page, above the fold, in 45 point font. That’s not going away, no matter how much the media refuses to even ask any hard questions about the coverage.

    CL asks, “So whom should he have gone to for the truth? Who was available?”

    To himself. He could see with his own eyes what was happening at the mine. He didn’t need someone else to tell him what was happening. (And of all people, reporters should know that eyewitness stories are often grossly inaccurate!)

    Almost every reporter who told the “miracle” story got their news from other people rather than checking it out for themselves. Most of them got it from other reporters who got it from other reporters who overhead somebody saying something.

    That’s reporting?

    I’m not picking on Derek. I like him. But read his post. He heard bells. He rushed to see what was going on. He tried but failed to question the governor. ‘but apparently he tells a reporter from his car windows that “yes, miracles do happen.”” So his first source is a secondhand report from another reporter that the governor said something. Then numerous people are seen saying “They’re alive! They’re alive!” He grabs quotes from several family members at the scene. That’s his second source.

    He calls his editor and the story runs. Derek, did you ever ask anyone, “How do you know this? Who told you they were alive?”

    Did anyone? Did one single reporter at the scene ever stop and ask, “How did you get this news?”

    I can’t count how many interviews I’ve done where I’ve tried to get the reporter to understand the issues. They seldom do. By the time I’m interviewed (as a subject matter expert) the thrust of the story is already fleshed out, and nothing I say can change that. The last interview I did, I flat out told the reporter that the issue was not what he said it was. He reported it anyway.

    Now, somebody gave him false information (in this particular case I know who did), but isn’t it the reporter’s job to at least listen to opposing viewpoints and ask himself if there’s any validity there? If I’m the expert, and I’m telling him he’s got the story all wrong, if he doesn’t report that, why did he even bother to interview me?

  • Anti-antimedia

    “I do recall seeing shots of the mine’s entrance, so it was obviously possible to get close enough to see the activity there.”

    Which means, antimedia, that you weren’t there. You were watching it on TV like many of us. I don’t think it’s fair to Derek or others who were sleep-deprived in the mud and cold while you were in your PJ’s on the couch to assume that you know better than every single person who was actually on the scene. Your antimedia-obsession is bordering on paranoia.

  • Antimedia – well, I actually didn’t have any binoculars on me.

    Even if I had … the most direct route to the mine was the bridge, and the cops weren’t letting reporters across the bridge. I could have walked a few miles and come in through a different route and snuck through the woods, I suppose, but it probably would have been over by the time I got there.

    Derek, did you ever ask anyone, “How do you know this? Who told you they were alive?”

    I’m not sure. I’d like to think that I did, but I might be remembering interviews conducted after we realized the families were dead. (My notebook from the time seems to have gone missing). I remember people saying they weren’t sure who told them, but someone had run into the room saying, “Hallejuah! They’re all alive!”

    Honestly, it just didn’t occur to any of us to doubt that what the families were saying was the truth. In retrospect … well, we should have. But we didn’t. Maybe we fell down on the job, or maybe we were just tired human beings caught up in a case of euphoria.

    A reporter for a major metro newspaper sent me email yesterday, saying in part, “I do remember we all felt a little uneasy sitting around that campfire, but I had been so cold and so tired, and the fire was so warm, that I didn’t let myself worry too much.”

    That probably sounds lame, huh? But I think we were all in the same boat. I had been working about 19 hours straight, operating on less than four hours of sleep. And while it wasn’t bitterly cold — it was in the 40s — that can still really wear on you if you’re outside for hours. We were just cold, muddy and exhausted.

    P.S. – Regarding the mine entrance. I’m not sure what pictures you saw. But state regulators did allow two pool visits to the mine. (Late Monday night they allowed a broadcast camera in, and then Tuesday-day they had AP and a European press agency still photograhers in). That doesn’t mean that reporters at the scene could get there easily, especially since the road was blocked off to allow ambulances to leave … ambulances we expected would be carrying the rescued miners.

  • Well Derek, I don’t think you deserve criticism for not remembering details and timing of an event that was both exhausting and trying. Trust me, I understand working long hours in the cold, etc., etc. and still having to perform your job. It’s not easy.

    The mine entrance. I saw pictures of a huge, rectangular opening in what was obviously the side of a mountain. There were tracks leading into it, which led me to believe it was the way into the mine and the way the miners would be brought out.

    To anti-antimedia (nice creativity there) who writes

    I don’t think it’s fair to Derek or others who were sleep-deprived in the mud and cold while you were in your PJ’s on the couch to assume that you know better than every single person who was actually on the scene. Your antimedia-obsession is bordering on paranoia.

    I see. No one is allowed to criticize anyone unless they’ve experience the same thing themselves. That should make for bland reading in the future editions of whatever publication you work for.

    I’m not paranoid about media. There are some really good people in media, such as Derek, who are really trying to hard to do the job right. But there are far, far too many arrogant, abrasive jerks who think no one has the right to criticize them and blame their every failure on everyone else but themselves.

    I just point that out. I know it irritates you. That’s why I enjoy it so.

    Derek, since you pointed to Jay Rosen’s article, and he basically says the same things I have said, but media types aren’t as put off by Jay (because he’s “one of them”), I suggest those who really have an interest in the why’s of this failure go there and read him.

    Or feel free to come over to my blog and insult me all you want. It really doesn’t bother me.

  • Derek: For the record, I do not find large fault with the newspapers that wound up with the wrong headline and went to bed with the story incorrect. And your account certainly increases my sympathy for the people in the field.

    My imagination might be instructed, and my understanding improved if, in your post, you had sketched the field of operations for readers. How big an area are we talking about, where are things in relation to other things going on, what’s the “map” on which the events take place. Because that’s totally real to you, and but a blank for us. Can’t you get satellite image of the area nowadays? Regardless, if you sketched the area it would have helped.

    Still, it’s a good post.

  • Hey Jay,
    I tried to find it on google maps yesterday, actually. But that is a good suggestion. I think this is it, but there satellite data isn’t of high enough resolution to be useful. Google doesn’t let me add pushpins, so I downloaded a screengrab of the map to my Flickr account and added notes explaining where things are, you can find it here.

  • themofo

    Antimedia wrote:

    “I see. No one is allowed to criticize anyone unless they’ve experience the same thing themselves.”

    Um, walking a mile in another person’s shoes before you fault them does make you sound a whole lot more credible and intelligent, yes. Otherwise, Antimedia, you sound like a blowhard who enjoys Monday morning quarterbacking.

  • Antimedia –
    I think these are the photos you saw. They were taken by AP photo Haraz Ghanbari on that pool trip I mentioned. All I can say is, I really don’t believe I could have gotten across the river and to the mine between midnight and 3 a.m. without getting arrested.

    That said, in retrospect I do wish I had spent more time trying to develop sources with the police and firefighters who were on the bridge, rather than warming up at the fire. As I mention in this piece, local radio reporter Zoe Ludski was able to get the truth while at the scene, so I should have been able to get it as well. And you are quite right, I should have been more skeptical and asked more questions.

    Coulda, shoulda, woulda, though, right? Coulda kicked the field goal, shoulda brought in a relief pitcher …

    The more I think about it, the more this episode maybe deserves a chapter in that book, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds.” I’m telling you, in that euphoria, it actually seemed plausible to all of us that the miners would be brought back to the church before being taken to the hospital. It wasn’t until 30-40 minutes later that w realized how ridiculous that would be.

  • themofo writes

    Um, walking a mile in another person’s shoes before you fault them does make you sound a whole lot more credible and intelligent, yes. Otherwise, Antimedia, you sound like a blowhard who enjoys Monday morning quarterbacking.

    Then we can expect that you will never file another story about something you’ve never personally experienced, right? I wonder, have you ever done anything other than reporting? Because that would certainly constrict the topics you could write on, wouldn’t it?

    Derek, thanks for the pics. Yes, that’s the opening I saw. Jay’s right. Getting a perspective of the scene helps. One of the pics has the sat trucks parked near the coal tipple. Were you allowed to go down there? Or only the sat personnel?

    I feel comfortable that you know I’m not picking on you personally. I just think this episode is symptomatic of a much bigger issue that the media trys to avoid discussing.

  • The satellite trucks near the coal tipple were in the area I referred to as the “mine headquarters,” although I’m not sure if that’s it’s actual name. That’s where the press conferences were held and a bunch of TV cameras set up there to get the dramatic backshot of the tipple.

    I was there several times and took my own photos with my cameraphone, attached to this post. Look at the paragraph that begins, “Another reporter remarks to be how…” and the one that begins “Five days later, I sit here typing…” I was standing roughly in the same place for both photos and just swiveled 180 degrees.

    The actual mine itself, where the miners were trapped, was across the river and about a mile or so away from there.

  • As someone who has spent much more time as a fact-checker than as a reporter, I do not feel qualified to comment at all as to what a person could have done to get near a mine that was blocked off and so forth. To me, that seems like it would have been a near impossibility. I’d just like to raise the issue, not yet mentioned, of attribution.

    Having worked on countless stories in which multiple (and often conflicting) perspectives of a what could be called a singular “event” are represented, a personal view of reporting, and media in general, has emerged for me.

    To me, reporting is the relaying of observations, and it is most clearly done when those observations are attributed. (IE, the reader wasn’t there, so the reporter “mediates” the observations of different people with differing views of an event in order to give the reader the clearest idea possible of an event, or string of events. )

    In MANY stories, the accumulated sources will disagree, even unto basic facts of an event.

    This disagreement of sources is handled by attribution. As a fact-checker, this becomes incredibly predictable over time… For example…The scientist challenging the validity of trials for the Star Wars Defense system is going to say that those trials were bogus, and the fact-checker will have his paper on her desk in order to “verify” that fact.However, what she is verifying is not “That the trials were bogus,” but literally, “Dr. So-and-So says the trials are bogus, and he gives the following reasons…” The weapons contractor who made the Missile Defense Shield is going to say that those trials were directly in accordance with standards set out by the Such-And-Such Oversight Agency. And the fact-checker will have the phone number of the Contact Person at Such-and-Such Oversight Agency in order to confirm that. (Not to confirm that the trials were “good,” But that 1. There are standards set out by Such And Such Oversight Agency, and 2. These trials were in accordance with those standards. Then, it gets more complex. Someone else claims that the standards of such-and-such oversight agency don’t apply to this weapons system, and that being in compliance with this agency doesn’t mean that Missile Defense System is effective. The reporter than asks the weapons contractor what else they have to say in defense of their trials. If they say nothing, and there’s no source to question the validity of the statements of the two sources who are claiming the trials were bogus, the reader gets the impression that the trials were bogus, but The NEWSPAPER is NOT SAYING THAT THE TRIALS WERE BOGUS. The Newspaper has no opinion.

    The article is trying to imply that the Missile Defense System is bogus. However, the fact-checker, who serves as legal firewall for the paper, is not trying to figure out whether Star Wars works or whether it doesn’t. Why?

    Because a newspaper is a newspaper! On a daily or weekly basis, a newspaper is not going to teach it’s staff how to translate from the Cantonese, how to run clinical trials on new medicines or missile defense systems, or, for that matter, how to infiltrate a heavily guarded mine shaft. The media is supposed to be expert at only one thing I can yet see, mediating information from multiple sources to give the best, most accurate reflection of an event or string of events to the readership. (Again, I have no idea what broadcast media is like. My only experience is in print.)

    So, if all the sources were in agreement, and that was the biggest news that night, and the paper was running with a headline on the miners—and you were going to PRESS—which, let me also bring up again that print media has the absolute limitation of having to Stop Gathering Info at some point and start printing it, and MAJOR KUDOS to anyone who has ever had to rewrite a cover in the middle of the night, I salute you—then, I cannot see how a paper could avoid printing a story that included the idea that everyone on the scene was saying that the miners were alive, with the general reader getting the impression that the miners are alive. Still the newspaper is not saying that the miners are alive. The newspaper has no opinion.

    In this story, like in any, the sources of information should be attributed. And, honestly, I don’t think it’s the media’s job to know what’s going on when no one knows what’s going on. The best a paper can do is be circumspect in getting a variety of sources, multiple perspectives, and attributing those observations to make a more complete picture.

    I didn’t read the Daily News story, so I’m not criticizing Derek or the News because I actually don’t even know if they attributed their sources or not. I’m just trying to get the focus away from expecting the media to be “infallible” or omniscent or Superman. Things like attribution and fact-checking and getting “the other side of the story:” from those who might be likely to disagree with the dominant voice in the story, exist so that the media can do it’s job without having to have superhuman mind-reading power. Or invisibility powers to sneak into a heavily guarded mine, etc.

    And I applaud all of you who worked so hard without sleep for this assignment. I have never done anything remotely like this, and I applaud applaud applaud your work and diligence.

    Apologies also if my understanding of reporting is scant. I’m really more of a fact-checker at heart, so, please, school me if I’m speaking in ignorance.

    all best-

  • Derek, obviously actually observing the mine was made a great deal more difficult by the local and state authorities. I can see now how difficult it would have been to sort out what was going on and get to the truth.

    FactChick, thanks for the explanation. I think you have to understand, however, that when the news consumer reads the headline, “They’re ALIVE!!”, the news consumer doesn’t think, “Oh, that’s what people on the scene are saying.” The news consumer thinks, “Oh, that’s what the newspaper is saying” or “Oh, that’s what happened.”

    Perhaps that can be attributed, at least in part, to the media’s consistent selling of themselves as the arbiters of the truth rather than the reporters of all the various opinions? Perhaps, instead of “All the news that’s fit to print”, it should be “all the opinions/observations we were able to verify.”

    I don’t know anyone who, when reading or watching a story, thinks to themselves, “Isn’t that interesting how they put all those facts together.” Generally, people think, “They’re telling me the truth” or “They’re not telling me the truth”.

    Right or wrong, that’s the burden the media must bear, and I think it would serve them well to keep that in mind and be very clear when they are reporting someone’s opinion and when they are reporting known, observable facts.

    Contrary to what the cynical themofo thinks, I am not monday morning quarterbacking. I’m trying to communicate that, I eat your product. I expect you to be honest about what you’ve cooked me. When I expect eggs and I get egg substitute, it pisses me off, because you didn’t tell me it was egg substitute. If it’s turkey bacon instead of pork bacon, I want to know that.

    Does that make sense?

  • I do understand what you’re saying.
    In addition to media outlets being responsible for the way in which they portray their product, I think media literacy should be part of a civics curriculum that the average kid is taught in school, at least as a class option.

    It’s ridiculous to me that I was taught how to dissect a pig in high school, but not how to read a newspaper or watch TV news with a critical eye.

  • FactChick, I couldn’t agree more. However, I think, in the long run, the Internet will teach criticality to people. I doubt there’s a one of us who hasn’t been taken in by one of the Internet hoaxes and excitedly forwarded it to our friends, only to be embarrassed when we discover the ruse.

    A few more of those lessons and you quickly learn to verify, verify, verify before you send anything along.

    I think that’s a good thing.

  • themofo

    I think Antimedia’s analogy about eating eggs is very apt, and indicative of just how bipolar most people’s attitude about the media really is. This was a huge, gripping, tragic story and the public was screaming, ‘Where are my eggs? Dammit, I need those eggs right now!’ Meanwhile, everyone on the scene in Sago was running around saying, ‘The miners are alive! That’s your order of eggs, take it and run!’ So the media gave what looked to be a genuine omlette to an information-starved public.

    Now, in theory, the media could have been more scrutinous with the information that the miners were alive; in theory, we could have done a molecular analysis of the eggs given to us, and found that they were only cheap egg substitute. But anyone who thinks media outlets generally have the resources to do that really doesn’t understand how the media business works. We are a stingy, cheap, corporate-driven industry that has ruthlessly pared back personnel and equipment to verify fact. If it looks like an egg and smells like an egg, and your customers are ceaselessly screaming for eggs, then you serve up the plate and worry about the consequences later.

    If you don’t like that situation, dont’ take it up with the reporters and the supposed media conspiracy in the editorial department; take it up with the publisher and the shareholders and the real conspiracy to make money at the expense of accuracy. Or shut up when news events happen, and wait patiently for three hours as reporters say ‘I don’t know’ rather than change the channel to someone else saying ‘the miners are alive.’

    I suspect the public, even ill-informed critics like Anti-media, will do neither. They’ll just whine, yet again.

  • Hello
    we realise this is a strange request but perhaps you could help us out with our project?

    Our names are Lara Thoms and Kat Barron and we are two artists from Sydney, Australia. Out artistic name is spat+loogie ( We are interested in technology and are doing an artwork about image search engines in the Internet and have an exhibition coming up soon. We have been researching images on the Internet and found one on your website, which we really liked. We found it when we searched the word “disaster”
    It is the ‘healing is hard’ image on your page.
    Would you be so kind as to help us realise this project by answering three questions about this image?

    Who created the image and why?
    How do you think this image relates the word ‘disaster’ (you can be creative)
    How do you think this image relates to the term ‘the future’?
    Is there anything else you’d like to share about this image?

    With your permission we’d like to publish your answers and display them at 1st darft gallery, Sydney beginning on Feb 21st. (

    If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email us. We believe that the Internet is a showcase for democratic art and image- making and hope to make an artwork that reflects this. We will happily send you photos of our exhibition.

    Yours sincerely
    Lara Thoms, Kat Barron

  • dave

    I know sago was b.s. cuz a group of guys, some friends of my dads,wanted to go get em at their own risk but couldnt. there was no fire and they were stopped… result 12 dead and a school friend that lived. gov’t dont give a shit now ya got montcoal

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