Thursday, January 05, 2006

Trying to learn from Sago

Rodger Morrow has a follow-up on the West Virginia coal mine disaster and the horrible miscommunications about how many miners were alive when search and rescue crews found them. For his original post, see How the press got the "Miracle at Sago" wrong.

For a related, very short post I found through trackbacks on his site, see Sago Mine Disaster.

For Editor & Publisher articles, see Media Report Miracle Mine Rescue -- Then Carry the Tragic Truth and Local W.Va. Paper Says Skepticism Helped it Avoid Mining Story Goof.

My previous posts here and here.

I regret having put out the false information on this blog -- but I have to admit I felt pretty comfortable with the news once I had more than one source, i.e., news coming from not only more than one website, but from more than one reporter. (Quite a few sites were just relaying what the AP reporter said, but others had their own reporter on it.)

The original hubbub happened late in the day around here. I headed to bed worried about how many miners might die in hospital, but pleased that the first thing people would see on my blog the next morning was good news. My husband was listening to the BBC, however, and he heard the story coming apart. For that matter, he said the poor reporter sounded like she was fighting back sobs, and kept saying things along the lines of 'I don't know if what I'm telling you now is right, I just don't know anymore.' And so I nixed sleep and tried to follow the story for a while, before finally putting up my own version of 'I don't know what to tell you right now' in an update, and giving up for the night.

Since then I've been trying to figure out if there was anything I should have seen that I didn't see at the time.

I'm still working on it, as you can see.

I hate it when I fall for stuff that turns out not to be true.

I know it's bound to happen from time to time, but I still hate it.

Another thought comes to mind, by the way. People in general, and perhaps folks in the blogosphere in particular, are fond of talking of "The Press" as if it's an entity. There are references to Old Media and New Media and Mainstream Media (MSM), and underneath all this is a tendency to lump most reporters into one large clump. There's some validity to that, up to a certain point, in certain areas, I think. Certainly, some of the 'reporters' who are in the business to try to influence politics or policy, or punish people who don't agree with them, deserve some of the heat they get, since what they're doing isn't reporting, as much as they'd like people to think so, and since there is a horrible conformity in some quarters.

But then there are the other folks in the news business, particularly away from political beats -- the ones who might, for instance, sob into a microphone upon realizing they may have falsely raised hopes and accidentally spread news that wasn't true. The ones who were happy for the miners' families, and who had to have been delighted to have the chance to report a miracle outcome to what had been shaping up as a pessimistic story. The reporters who aren't just "blankety-blank extensions of their blankety-blank microphones" as a friend of mine who worked in television news called some of his colleagues. (And, yes, he actually said "blankety-blank". He generally cleaned things up when talking around ladies.)

Let me give you a little context here. I got scammed as a reporter, bigtime, once, by a hustler who'd also scammed folks at the national network level. It wasn't any consolation to me that the big boys got burned, too. I'm grateful to this day to the police chief who sat me down and politely, patiently, and discreetly explained to me why I shouldn't have believed the guy from the get-go.

At least, in that case, I had somebody to be mad at. I got hustled. And in my case, no one got hurt, not really. It was a feel-good, feature story kind of thing, with no victims. The police checked things out, and the last I heard the best that anybody could determine was that this guy just wanted his name in the paper and his mug on television, probably just because otherwise in his life he had nothing that he considered an achievement, and he was the sort of guy who didn't feel good about himself without folks applauding. Some folks in the news business in my day used to call folks like that 'dancing bear' men. As in people who show up at your desk with some sideshow sort of thing, hoping it's good enough to get their picture taken, usually so their momma will clip it out of the paper and say she's proud of her little boy, what with him getting his picture in the paper and all.

I can't imagine what it's like right now for the reporters (and their editors) who got caught up in the good news announcements in West Virginia and then had to retract. It's obvious that running with the false story caused a lot of hurt. And there aren't any hustlers to point fingers at, no dancing bears to blame, not much to blame, really, except man's incredible capacity for optimism, and who wants to kick that? I don't.

1 comment:

Bookworm said...

Part of the problem, Kathryn, is the 24 hour news cycle. Reporters don't get a paper out once a day, which usually gives them some room to verify most stories. Instead, as Katrina showed, and as this story showed, in the 24 hour news cycle, reporters have to say something at all times -- and they're getting less and less interested in verifying facts, as long as they can fill that empty air space. I suspect that the errors of Katrina and the West Virginia mining accident are either (a) going to spell the end of folks relying on this type of news or (b) a real self-evaluation in the newsrooms aiming at accuracy over speed.