Many Americans woke up Wednesday to see newspaper headlines blaring the news, "They're alive!" only to see TV news reports of miners' deaths.
Those same Americans, if watching cable news channels about midnight CST, were seeing excited news reporters proclaiming survival -- before a different outcome became obvious by 2 a.m. or so.
Therein lies a lesson for journalists and those who care about news (everyone should): Don't believe everything you initially hear.
Accounts indicate overheard cell phone conversations between rescuers in the mine and hopeful officials above were misinterpreted.
The coal company's two-hour gap before passing on the truth they already knew to the waiting families didn't help matters.
From the point of view of my long years of police beat coverage, I doubt I would have instantly jumped on "survival" without seeing more than one live person being brought out or having been told of multiple survivors face-to-face by an official directly involved in rescue efforts.
From my copy editor's point of view (I write the front page headlines) I'd like to think I wouldn't have proclaimed, "They're alive!" in a large headline before actually seeing living, breathing miners brought out. But I don't want to second-guess some of the best professionals in journalism. Admittedly, while watching the early live coverage, that's the headline I was considering. Our headline was correct due to our much-later deadline.
It's been interesting, though, watching the governor of West Virginia telling USA Today he "never confirmed" the miners survived. (For some reason I doubt Gov. Phil Bredesen would have spent the night outside a mining disaster in Tennessee. Don't know why I feel that way, but...)
"They told us they have 12 alive," Gov. Joe Manchin said. My first impulse when reading that story over the Associated Press wire was, "Who is 'they'?" And my second reaction is that a governor should have had access to people who would know for sure; surprisingly, at one point he was quoted as saying he didn't. But my third impulse is that if the governor said it, it's sort of a confirmation.
Part of the problem may have been reporters who aren't used to the nuances of covering disasters and police beat and couldn't "read between the lines" of what they were hearing. I rely on the word "confirm" and, if possible, prefer to actually see for myself.
Associated Press managing editor Mike Silverman said they were "reporting accurately the information that we were provided by credible sources -- family members and the governor." AP's overnight on-scene reporter, Allen G. Breed, has been around for years and has a highly-recognizable name among journalists. Just seeing his byline probably caused many editors to trust his reporting.
"The best information would have come from mine company officials, but they chose not to talk," Silverman said.
That's a prime example of how NOT talking to the media hurts your cause. It would have helped tremendously if the media had been allowed better access to the command center instead of being, as it appeared on TV, kept away from the site and forced to rely on press briefings from mining company officials.
If you think the media doesn't belong at disaster scenes, you're wrong. Media access keeps rumors like those of "survival" from developing. As a story is passed from mouth to mouth details gradually change until truth becomes horribly flawed.
But the real force behind the incorrect reporting may have been hope.
The families became excited from hearing the misleading information. The excitement spread to the reporters.
Those of us in the media are human. We like to report happy endings to tragedies. And the media, in those cold, dark, emotional overnight hours, were feeling that on-deadline rush to get the good news out first.
See, we're not so bad after all.
David Melson is a Times-Gazette copy editor/staff writer. Your responses welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org