Miners#039; tragedy casts bad light on media

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 14, 2006

It happened like this: Someone told something to someone else and a few minutes later the word leaked out that 12 of the 13 miners who had become trapped in a West Virginia coal mine were alive, somehow miraculously surviving an explosion and the suffocating effects of carbon monoxide gas. Miracle, the national media touted, as families of the 12 celebrated and rejoiced the way only those can rejoice when failing hope has been rekindled.

Faith, it seemed, had been rewarded.

But in the long hours that followed, the truth was finally realized. A mine had become a tomb for 12 men, and 12 families were shattered. This cruelest joke had these Christian families actually questioning God's existence as morning newspapers, although unknowingly, mocked their suffering. For national newspapers, it was &#8220Dewey Defeats Truman” gone horribly wrong.

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In the era of sensational headlines and bolder pictures, newspapers across the country touted the miners' survival. The Pittsburgh-Post Gazette delivered &#8220Miracle at Sago: 12 Miners Alive.” The Boston Herald declared &#8220Miner Miracle!” Large photos of family members crying tears of joy or celebrating accompanied a majority of the headlines.

But in the hours that followed, newspapers were forced to backtrack. USA Today issued a note of apology, stating that in nearly half of its Wednesday editions it had &#8220reported that 12 of the 13 trapped West Virginia miners had been found alive.” The erroneous report, said the paper, was based on an Associated Press story citing West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. Similar stories trafficked through other newspaper offices on the Wednesday after the fact.

In the rush to make deadlines, the media took a supposed fact and ran with it, which is similar to what happened in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. There is an incessant need within the media to be the first to deliver a story, but in this case it cost us dearly. As David Perlmutter, associate professor of Mass Communications at LSU said in an article on the Editor and Publisher website, the tragedy in West Virginia suggests &#8220that the god of speed must be thrown down and that accuracy and relevance should become the preeminent standards of serious journalism.”

After this heartbreaking series of events, relatives of the dead must try their best to move on.

An AP story on Thursday reported that some of the coal miners had left notes behind for their family, assuring them that they had not suffered as the deadly carbon monoxide coaxed their bodies into an eternal sleep.

We commend their souls to God. Along with our apologies to their families.

Kevin Pearcey is Group Managing Editor of Greenville Newspapers, LLC. He can be reached by phone at 383-9302, ext. 136 or by email at: editor@greenville.advocate.com.