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Developing Story

Sago Mine Explosion (January 2006)

An explosion in a Tallmansville, West Virginia coal mine triggered a frantic rescue operation. Media descended on the small town, and since the action was happening deep underground, reporters had nothing to do but focus on the reaction of the family members and victims, and wait for official reports from rescue workers.

About two days after the explosion, I happened to be up late (blogging, as it happened), when I noticed an online news story that one of the miners had been found dead, and that there were signs the other miners survived the explosion and may have looked for a safe place to await rescue.

Shortly afterward, the internet was full of stories reporting that family members were cheering, saying that the other 12 had been found alive.

A few stories noted that mining officials and rescue workers hadn't yet confirmed anything, but church bells were ringing and family members who had been avoiding reporters came out of seclusion to share their tears of joy for the cameras; ambulances lined up at the mine entrance to transport the wounded; the governor of West Virginia and other politicians offered congratulatory quotes.

I remember noting in passing that the news stories were all carefully attributing the source of this news to family members, and a few mentioned CNN.  But I got distracted by the emotional quality of the stories, and blogged something about a reporter who write an editorial about how hard it is to interview families about tragic events.

A few hours later -- I was still up (it was during the January break and my family is generally on a very late schedule) when a new report emerged: the other 12 men had been found dead.

Now, if you search for "Sago" on CNN, one of the results that comes up is this:

updated Tue January 3, 2006

Family members say 12 miners found alive

Twelve miners who have been trapped underground for more than 36 hours are alive, their friends and relatives were told.

Websites quickly scrambled to correct stories, but many newspapers had gone to press shortly after the good (inaccurate) news broke. The New York Times ran a front-page photo of celebrating people, with the unambiguous headline, "12 Miners Found Alive 41 Hours After Explosion."  (The original article is still online, though the editors added a note pointing to a more accurate version.)

However, clicking on the link yields an error.

The Internet Archive preserves the CNN page, which relies on the passive voice to tell the story.

Twelve miners who have been trapped underground for more than 36 hours are alive, their friends and relatives were told.

To their credit, reporters are not claiming that mining company officials said this, but rather, after quotations from the governor, a member of the house of representatives, and a family member, all of whom speak of the rescue as factual, we read:

A friend of one of the miners told CNN's Anderson Cooper that a mine official had come out and said, "We got 12 alive!" The friend, who did not give his name, said rescue crews were going into the mine.
That's a thinly sourced attribution. Since we have been studying the importance of attribution, we can see the careful effort this story takes to avoid overstating the credibility of this source.

I should point out that the family members had gathered in a church to wait for reports from rescue teams. 

Since the action was happening deep underground, and there were no circling helicopters or telephoto lens shots that reporters could use to plug the news hole, and because reporters were kept out of the church, and the family members were being notified first of any new developments, the reporters had good reason to suspect that the family members had direct access to accurate information.

Everyone makes mistakes.  My point in telling a story about this particular mistake is not to gloat, but rather to demonstrate how, even when reporters are careful to cite their sources accurately, the emotional content can lead to big misunderstandings.  I'm sure that the politicians and ambulance workers saw the rejoicing people on CNN, and then decided to act as if what they heard was true.  Reporters, desperately seeking confirmation that they weren't getting from mining officials, started reporting what they did find -- the politicians and rescue workers acting as if the miracle really had occurred.

And perhaps the reporters, who had been filing nothing but depressing reports for two days, were thrilled at the chance to publish good news.  I remember chiding myself for being too cynical, when I considered blogging a snarky comment about how weakly sourced this claim was.

Sago was severely criticized for letting the families celebrate for 2 and a half hours before correcting the misconception, but reporters made a bad thing worse when they filed a shaky story.   While the websites could update their stories as soon as the mining officials started talking, by 4am -- at least an hour after the correct news started to spread -- Google News was still serving up the inaccurate headlines:GoogleMiners.png

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