FOR THE WEEK OF JAN. 09, 2006
Mine news mistake embarrasses media
Though a misstep this large and this widespread is rare, it’s a reminder that newspapers work to separate facts from opinions or commentary. Ask students to use a news article, a news analysis or commentary, an editorial and a personal column in a discussion of how writers present verified facts, first-hand observations and interview quotes in most parts of the paper, while specialized writers give their own views in other areas. What layout, headline and labeling cues help readers spot the difference?
Journalists regularly cover events that change before newspapers are delivered, so they report as much as they can accurately and provide useful background that helps readers understand the eventual outcome. Challenge students to find or recall examples of "unfinished stories" that appear all the time and discuss the value of reading them even without details of the final vote count, athletic event outcome, snowfall total, natural disaster toll or other pending development.
Words written by reporters and editors are not the only ones printed in newspapers. Ask students to show where outside voices appear in the newspaper -- sometimes disagreeing with a news article or opinion page editorial, sometimes presenting a personal experience or perspective, and sometimes challenging comments by another person who spoke to a reporter. Let classmates discuss whether they feel a fair balance of views usually appears.
Newspapers and broadcasters across the country wrongly said 12 trapped miners had been rescued in West Virginia last week, prompting discussions in print, on the air, on blogs, in classrooms and in many other places about why so many professionals reported something that hadn’t happened. The issue raises questions of newsgathering methods, media competition, trust and reliability.
The false report was traced to misunderstood communications between search teams and above-ground coordinators. Somehow the mistaken belief that 12 men had survived was relayed to family members and neighbors gathered at Sago Baptist Church, who celebrated as reporters and Gov. Joe Manchin watched. The Associated Press wire service quoted the governor as saying: "They told us they have 12 alive. We have some people that are going to need some medical attention." He rushed to the mine after aides told him they had no confirmation.
About three hours after the unconfirmed "news" spread from the small church to front pages and newscasts nationwide, the coal company told relatives and reporters that only one of its 13 buried miners was alive. Broadcast and web corrections were made immediately, but papers already were printed –- though some fixed later editions.
Journalists, educators and consumers still are exploring what this reveals about how news is verified and reported. "Conversations are underway across the newsroom on how to prevent it from happening again," said George de Lama, an editor at the Chicago Tribune. "This is not a good day for news organizations. We're all sick about this."
Journalists say: They were misled by various sources, including the state’s leader. "When the governor proclaimed that the rescue was successful, that's about as credible a source as there is," noted Managing Editor Brett Thacker of the San Antonio Express-News.
Critics say: Frenzied competition undercuts caution and judgment. "Sure, the bum information came from West Virginia's governor, and the coal company shamefully refused to correct the record for hours," noted Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media writer. "But the fault lies with the journalists for not instinctively understanding that early, fragmentary information in times of crisis is often wrong. You don't broadcast or publish until it's absolutely nailed down. . . . This was, quite simply, a media debacle, born of news organizations' feverish need to breathlessly report each development 30 seconds ahead of their competitors."
Lessons learned: (1) Reporters and editors should seek confirmation by sources with first-hand knowledge. "Even when plausibly reliably sources such as officials pass along information, journalists should press for key details," said faculty member Scott Libin at the Poynter Institute in Florida, a mid-career training center for news professionals. "What the mayor or police chief or governor says deserves at least some healthy skepticism and verification." (2) Don’t report what you didn’t see or learn from a direct witness. USA Today, the nation’s largest-circulation paper, printed: "The men were taken by ambulances to a nearby hospital for examination." On the MSNBC cable network, anchor Rita Cosby told viewers the "miners were sipping water." (3) Haste is an enemy of accuracy. "Modern newscraft, addicted to technology, worships the god of speed. . . . We have lost all perspective about what is an important story and, more vital, what is most important about a news story: getting the facts right," wrote David D. Perlmutter in Editor & Publisher, an industry magazine. He teaches mass communication at Louisiana State University.
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