Wednesday, January 4

Communication & Ethical Breakdown

Broken News
Rushing to Be First Means Getting It Wrong at WV Mine Disaster

What happened to attribution, confirmation, using trusted & reliable sources?


You can put the blame it on the wolf pack mentality/media circus that took over in Upsher County, West Virginia, but the miscommunication of 12 trapped coal miners found alive when indeed only one survived is a telling symptom of the breakdown in ethical journalism in the wake of live, cable-driven coverage of such events. The media frenzy clearly demonstrates what can go wrong when emotions rule reporters, producers and editors.

In the heat of the moment of trying to break news and serve the master of “immediacy,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper and other broadcast outlets were just as culpable of adding to the pain. Most of the journalists failed to seriously question the “unofficial” information they were putting on live broadcasts. They failed to approach the rejoicing cautiously.

Journalists failed to nail down official confirmation. They failed to seek out the facts through multiple, trusted sources. Instead the professional journalists were lead around by emotional reaction from locals residents reconstructing their reality from what they heard passed around from second and third hand sources.

According to Editor & Publisher, "It's one of the most disturbing and disgraceful media performances of this type in recent years," as newspapers published headlines of “12 Alive” it clearly demonstrated how dedication to truth and fact finding was shoved aside for breaking a story based on hearsay.

"Journalists -- whether working in the field or in the newsroom -- should be professionally skeptical. Journalists should push constantly the "what if?" button. "What if that information isn't true?" "What if the source is wrong?" That professional skepticism is part of a vigorous checks and balances process that debunks rumors, reveals false assumptions and clarifies misconceptions. Ideally, professional skepticism produces high-quality, believable reports," writes Poynter Institute's Bob Steel.

While newspapers could quickly repair the headline and coverage snafus online, USA Today and other papers sent out second runs to replace their hardcopy mistakes. USA Today’s original story also veiled attribution to an unnamed source in the governor’s office is suspect of fabrication as West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin refuted the attribution to Matt Lauer who was bigfooting the story for the Today show.

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz agrees that the media botched the story. He faults the journalists getting caught up as part of the story.

"You don't broadcast or publish until it's absolutely nailed down, or at least you hedge the report six ways to Sunday. This was, quite simply, a media debacle, born of news organizations' feverish need to breathlessly report each development 30 seconds ahead of their competitors," writes Kurtz.

Journalists need to revisit the guidelines for the truth and attribution and take a critical look at their role in all that went wrong. While they've been eager to shine a spotlight on someone to blame as they question mine officials about how this communication breakdown occurred , they've conveniently forgotten to shine that same light on their own behavior.

Reaction & criticism from the WC community:

  • Titan Radio News Director Amanda Hauger addressed the situation in her BC Capstone Blog.
  • Westminster Economics & Business Instructor Walt Dunlavey (he taught the Communication Law class last semester) responded to my posting with the following in an e-mail: "TV news shows, particularly cable TV news shows, are nothing but super market tabloids...one step shy of Jerry Springer."

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

There's no attempt to report anymore and you can thank cable TV news. It's a sad, mobile reality show that moves from disaster to disaster asking victims "how do you feel?" Don't the poor people see how they're being exploited by media companies that make bigger profits than the mining company could ever hope to make.

Liz Farry said...

What a mess! I just wrote a novel of a blog on situation. Check it out when you have 3 1/2 hours.

Mike Wolenski said...

As long as the media is just going to make up stories they played their cards backwards on this one. Shortly after the explosion they should have reported that all 13 miners were killed. That way if anyone did survive they could be the heroes and break with the miracle news that there are survivors.

Anonymous said...

Getting caught up in the moment when your out in the field is dangerous. Cooler heads need to prevail in those situations and if journalist's cannot accept the criticism they should get out.

Patrick said...

What a horrible situation. Unfortunately it's one of those times when the news organizations actually become the news themselves. It's so sad to think that these journalists were so caught up in being first and having the best story that they blindly followed one lead, which turned out to be completely wrong.

Have they even found out who was the person who said 12 were alive in the first place? I doubt that person will ever come forward.

Mich Maniac said...

CNN and the rest of them are giving people what they want to see. Look at the ratings (but Geraldo on Fox) was really caught up in the frenzy. What a dweeb.

matthew t. mangino said...

A Lesson in Human Decency
Matthew T. Mangino

Imagine if you would, you receive an urgent call that a loved one was involved in an accident and was on the way to the hospital. You rush to the hospital and meet with the ER doctor. He tells you “Everything is fine, your loved one is stable . . . relax and we’ll talk again.”

Three hours later you find out that your loved one is dead, died on arrival. Your original conversation with the doctor was actually about another patient, not your loved one, and the doctor and hospital new about the mistake 2 ½ hours before they told you.

Lets go inside the ER when the doctor and hospital personnel realized the mistake.
“Dr. X did you speak with the Smith family,” ask the ER nurse. “Yes, I’ll talk with them again after his vital signs stabilize,” replies a preoccupied Dr. X.

“Ah . . .Dr. X, um. . .Mr. Smith is dead,” replies the nurse. “What!” exclaims X. “Yea, Mr. Smith was DOA, Mr. Alive is being treated in here.”

“Oh my god . . . call my lawyer, get a hold of the hospital president and counsel, we’ve gotta big problem,” said X as he bolted for the ER exit.

About a ½ hour later the president and hospital counsel arrived at the executive meeting room, where a disheveled Dr. X sat waiting with his lawyer on the speakerphone.

“I really messed up …” started Dr. X. His lawyer interrupted, “Excuse me, Dr. X apparently was given information that Mr. Smith survived and immediately conveyed that information to the decedents family in the exercise of his duties as ER doctor and . . .”
“Wait a minute,” chimes in the president, “stop with the legal crap, we know what happened.”

“Where is the Smith family,” asks Dr. X’s lawyer.

“Well more and more of the family are showing up, they’re praying and celebrating in the waiting room. They heard there was a fatality, but they think it’s someone else,” said the president. “Great,” replies X’s attorney.

“Lets get the insurance company in on this,” says the hospital counsel.

“Good, good that’ll buy me some time to look into the law on this,” respond X’s lawyer. “What about the family,” asks Dr. X? “Nothing, we can’t do anything until we know where we stand,” says X’s lawyer.

The meeting reconvenes an hour later. “Do we have the insurance company on the line.” “Yea,” a droll voice responds from the telephone speaker box. The voice continues, “You guys have a problem, we have policy limits of $200,000 per occurrence, which includes defense costs …you guys are on the hook for the rest.” There was silence. The voice continued, “Frankly we’ll put the two hundred grand on the table right now, you figure out how to cover your ass for the rest.”

Dr. X’s counsel matter-of-factly states, “We may have at the very least an emotional distress claim to deal with.”

“We’re also going to have a riot on our hands when the family finds out,” said hospital counsel.

“Lets bite the bullet and tell them, but not until we get Dr. X out of here and a police presence to protect the hospital personnel,” said X’s lawyer.

“I’ll call the police and make arrangements for Dr. X’s safe departure,” says the hospital counsel.

Another hour passes, X is secreted from the hospital and the police are in place. The executive assistant to the president accompanied by two deputy sheriffs meet with the Smith family, friends and pastor who have joined in the celebration of a miracle.
“Your loved one did not survive the accident….a miscommunication had inadvertently occurred and incorrect information was conveyed to you…we’re sorry.”

Can you imagine the pain, the anguish, and the anger? Can you imagine what it was like to be in Tallmansville, West Virginia on Wednesday morning, January 4, 2006?

Sure the media jumped the gun. They reported a story that neither the governor’s office or International Coal Group, Inc. would confirm. In fact, ABC News put out a story early on Wednesday morning saying, “A relative at the church said a mine foreman called relatives there, saying the miners have been found.”

Ben Hatfield of International Coal said the spread of inaccuracies occurred because of miscommunications between the rescuers and the command center that several people “overheard.”

The media frenzy that “created” the miracle, was only out down by the frenzy surrounding the revelation that there was no miracle. CNN’s Anderson Cooper best exemplified the frenzy. At approximately midnight Cooper was live from Tallmansville interviewing one family member after another with quotes like “They’re alive,” “Miracles happen in West Virginia,” “I couldn’t give up.” Three hours later Cooper is live again talking to a woman and her children who ran from the church while the families were being told the tragic news. “Someone needs to tell everyone that they’re all dead but one, we came to see a miracle, and there is no miracle.”

I guess someone could of walked up to Cooper and told him that Elvis was in the mine and he would have gone live with the story.

The Governor’s mere refusal to confirm that there were twelve survivors does not exonerate him from responsibility. As soon as the governor’s staff learned that the information might not be accurate he had a responsibility to immediately alert the families. It doesn’t matter if he knew about the inaccurate information for 15 minutes or 2 ½ hours, he needed to act. The news accounts indicate that when the mine owners went to tell the families the truth, the West Virginia State Police and a SWAT team were assembled outside the church to intervene in the event of violence. It takes time to assemble a SWAT team and someone in state government would have to issue the order. Obviously, some government official knew the information was false before the families were informed.

Can you imagine waiting for a SWAT team and continuing to let those families revel in the false idea that their loved ones are still alive. A governor and coal executives waiting for protection before they pull the plug on a macabre celebration.

As for International Coal Group their conduct in even putting men in the Sago Mine, let alone what they did on Wednesday morning, is so outrageous they should just liquidate there assets and prepare to distribute the proceeds to the families of the victims. According to Hatfield the “miracle” story was a miscommunication that was overheard and relayed to the families. This seems to imply that the miscommunication was soon corrected. Did Hatfield hope that the correction would also be overheard and conveyed to the families.

If Hatfield would have turned on a television he would have learned what every viewer in the country already knew, there was a miracle in West Virginia. Yet, Hatfield knew different and did nothing for more than 2 ½ hours.

Could the Dr. X scenario have played out in the Tallmansville command center on Wednesday morning? We may never know. However, we do know that the Sago Mine disaster is a lesson not only for the media, but also for government communication, business public relations and plain human decency.

(Matthew T. Mangino is the former District Attorney of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania)

Tandi Lane said...

This was an awful situation for the families of the miners. They all were overjoyed when they heard almost all of the men made it out alive only to find out 3 hours later that those 12 out of 13 men were dead instead of alive. I do the news on our morning show in Tallahassee and it was really disturbing to me becuase this was my big national news story and I had the updated information about the 12 men actually being dead. But, we trust stories from the local newspaper as well that we get in every morning and it had the story as the 12 men being alive. It's upseting when you're trying to be accurate and you're supposed to trust the paper as a reliable news source, and you can't trust them. I always have to double check everything I do...from the way to pronounce rivers and citites and making sure the detailed information is correct! Apart from print, radio is immediacy, and I want to make sure my info is topical, accurate, and appeals to the audience. Radio news always has to have the most updated info. because unless your CNN or Fox News, radio is the number 1 way to get the latest update the quickest cause you just turn on the mic. Anyway, I'm babbling, but I think this whole story is a good learning expereince for all of us! Experienced reporters that have been in the biz for 20 years and up and coming reporters. Just always get your final informtation from a reliable source before you broadcast it. Remember, the audience trusts us for the most reliable and accurate information, so give them a reason to trust you. Check your facts.

Matthew T Mangino said...

A Lesson in Human Decency

Matthew T. Mangino


Imagine if you would, you receive an urgent call that a loved one was involved in an accident and was on the way to the hospital. You rush to the hospital and meet with the ER doctor. He tells you “Everything is fine, your loved one is stable . . . relax and we’ll talk again.”


Three hours later you find out that your loved one is dead, died on arrival. Your original conversation with the doctor was actually about another patient, not your loved one, and the doctor and hospital new about the mistake 2 ½ hours before they told you.


Lets go inside the ER when the doctor and hospital personnel realized the mistake.

“Dr. X did you speak with the Smith family,” ask the ER nurse. “Yes, I’ll talk with them again after his vital signs stabilize,” replies a preoccupied Dr. X.


“Ah . . .Dr. X, um. . .Mr. Smith is dead,” replies the nurse. “What!” exclaims X. “Yea, Mr. Smith was DOA, Mr. Alive is being treated in here.”


“Oh my god . . . call my lawyer, get a hold of the hospital president and counsel, we’ve gotta big problem,” said X as he bolted for the ER exit.


About a ½ hour later the president and hospital counsel arrived at the executive meeting room, where a disheveled Dr. X sat waiting with his lawyer on the speakerphone.


“I really messed up …” started Dr. X. His lawyer interrupted, “Excuse me, Dr. X apparently was given information that Mr. Smith survived and immediately conveyed that information to the decedents family in the exercise of his duties as ER doctor and . . .”

“Wait a minute,” chimes in the president, “stop with the legal crap, we know what happened.”


“Where is the Smith family,” asks Dr. X’s lawyer.


“Well more and more of the family are showing up, they’re praying and celebrating in the waiting room. They heard there was a fatality, but they think it’s someone else,” said the president. “Great,” replies X’s attorney.


“Lets get the insurance company in on this,” says the hospital counsel.


“Good, good that’ll buy me some time to look into the law on this,” respond X’s lawyer. “What about the family,” asks Dr. X? “Nothing, we can’t do anything until we know where we stand,” says X’s lawyer.


The meeting reconvenes an hour later. “Do we have the insurance company on the line.” “Yea,” a droll voice responds from the telephone speaker box. The voice continues, “You guys have a problem, we have policy limits of $200,000 per occurrence, which includes defense costs …you guys are on the hook for the rest.” There was silence. The voice continued, “Frankly we’ll put the two hundred grand on the table right now, you figure out how to cover your ass for the rest.”


Dr. X’s counsel matter-of-factly states, “We may have at the very least an emotional distress claim to deal with.”


“We’re also going to have a riot on our hands when the family finds out,” said hospital counsel.


“Lets bite the bullet and tell them, but not until we get Dr. X out of here and a police presence to protect the hospital personnel,” said X’s lawyer.


“I’ll call the police and make arrangements for Dr. X’s safe departure,” says the hospital counsel.


Another hour passes, X is secreted from the hospital and the police are in place. The executive assistant to the president accompanied by two deputy sheriffs meet with the Smith family, friends and pastor who have joined in the celebration of a miracle.

“Your loved one did not survive the accident….a miscommunication had inadvertently occurred and incorrect information was conveyed to you…we’re sorry.”


Can you imagine the pain, the anguish, and the anger? Can you imagine what it was like to be in Tallmansville, West Virginia on Wednesday morning, January 4, 2006?


Sure the media jumped the gun. They reported a story that neither the governor’s office or International Coal Group, Inc. would confirm. In fact, ABC News put out a story early on Wednesday morning saying, “A relative at the church said a mine foreman called relatives there, saying the miners have been found.”


Ben Hatfield of International Coal said the spread of inaccuracies occurred because of miscommunications between the rescuers and the command center that several people “overheard.”


The media frenzy that “created” the miracle, was only out down by the frenzy surrounding the revelation that there was no miracle. CNN’s Anderson Cooper best exemplified the frenzy. At approximately midnight Cooper was live from Tallmansville interviewing one family member after another with quotes like “They’re alive,” “Miracles happen in West Virginia,” “I couldn’t give up.” Three hours later Cooper is live again talking to a woman and her children who ran from the church while the families were being told the tragic news. “Someone needs to tell everyone that they’re all dead but one, we came to see a miracle, and there is no miracle.”


I guess someone could of walked up to Cooper and told him that Elvis was in the mine and he would have gone live with the story.


The Governor’s mere refusal to confirm that there were twelve survivors does not exonerate him from responsibility. As soon as the governor’s staff learned that the information might not be accurate he had a responsibility to immediately alert the families. It doesn’t matter if he knew about the inaccurate information for 15 minutes or 2 ½ hours, he needed to act. The news accounts indicate that when the mine owners went to tell the families the truth, the West Virginia State Police and a SWAT team were assembled outside the church to intervene in the event of violence. It takes time to assemble a SWAT team and someone in state government would have to issue the order. Obviously, some government official knew the information was false before the families were informed.


Can you imagine waiting for a SWAT team and continuing to let those families revel in the false idea that their loved ones are still alive. A governor and coal executives waiting for protection before they pull the plug on a macabre celebration.


As for International Coal Group their conduct in even putting men in the Sago Mine, let alone what they did on Wednesday morning, is so outrageous they should just liquidate there assets and prepare to distribute the proceeds to the families of the victims. According to Hatfield the “miracle” story was a miscommunication that was overheard and relayed to the families. This seems to imply that the miscommunication was soon corrected. Did Hatfield hope that the correction would also be overheard and conveyed to the families.


If Hatfield would have turned on a television he would have learned what every viewer in the country already knew, there was a miracle in West Virginia. Yet, Hatfield knew different and did nothing for more than 2 ½ hours.


Could the Dr. X scenario have played out in the Tallmansville command center on Wednesday morning? We may never know. However, we do know that the Sago Mine disaster is a lesson not only for the media, but also for government communication, business public relations and plain human decency.


(Matthew T. Mangino is the former District Attorney of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania)