Thursday, January 05, 2006

Mine coverage and early false reports: Who's to blame?

kash Kheirkhah

Critics are still slamming the news networks blunders during the mine coverage, including former CNN producer Tom Farmer who, according to, is furious over media's early erroneous reports of miners being found alive:

"Too many celebrity anchors assembled in West Virginia last night -- not enough reporters. When twelve-alive fever swept the live shot positions, who asked the basic reporter's question: 'How do you know?' Who demanded a second source? Who held back pending more official confirmation? By uncritically and breathlessly relaying shouted bulletins from sprinting family members, the cable celebs transubstantiated rumor into fact. Reporting means asking questions and making cautious judgments, not just repeating things you hear.This is a classic, tragic case of fear of being left behind, and critical-mass media momentum, crushing basic judgment. It will be a good long time before I can look at braying, beaming, bouncing Rita Cosby and believe she has any critical faculties or filters. And she was only one offender. And we wonder why the audience believes less and less mainstream media coverage. It's literally unbelievable. Who asks 'How do you know?' anymore?"

I'm sure that just like me Mr Farmer was watching CNN when it first reported that miners trapped in a West Virginia coal mine had been found alive. To be fair, Anderson Cooper did ask a few times the basic reporter's question: 'How do you know?':

COOPER: Wow. The families, we are told, are screaming, some family members screamed that 12 people were found alive. That is -- we cannot confirm that. There is a lot of hugging going on. One eyewitness is telling me right now --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hugging and crying and screaming, 12 alive! 12 alive!

COOPER: A number of people have been yelling and screaming, 12 alive, 12 alive.

COOPER: Sir, what have you heard? Please come tell us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Terry. Come on up, this is a friend of Terry Helms.

COOPER: You're a friend of Terry Helms. Terry was -- what have you heard?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They just come out of the mines, they say we got 12 alive. It's good news.

COOPER: Where did you -- who told you that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They just came out of the mines and sent an official down, said we got 12 alive. They're going in now with -- going in now with the rescue crews...

...COOPER: That is incredible news. Again, if this turns out to be true, we have not been able to independently confirm this. But the family members have been told, a number of family members have been told, we're not clear on who exactly told them, but a mine official is traditionally the ones who tell them this information, that the 12 miners are alive.The governor of West Virginia, we are told, just walked out of the church, held up his thumb and said, "Believe in miracles. Believe in miracles."...

Anderson responds to the critics on website:
"For those of us in the media, I'm not sure what we could have done to keep this news from spreading like it did. When you have the governor of the state giving you the thumbs-up, a congresswoman talking about this on air, hundreds of relatives and family members jubilant, some of who received calls from mining officials, it's tough to ignore what they're saying.There is only so much you can do short of seeing firsthand who is alive and who isn't. We made requests to have access to the rescue operation, but they were denied."

I agree with Cooper. Unfortunately, there's has been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking around for past 48 hours. Critics seem to have forgotten that live news broadcasts are prone to mistakes of this nature. (a case in point is the US election in 2000 when all major the networks declared Bush the winner only to retract it a few minutes later, a learning experience that changed the network news coverage of the elections for ever). As Mark Effron, vice president of news-daytime programming for MSNBC, explains:

"In cable news...we're reporting news as it's being made, in all its rawness. To sithere and armchair ridiculous."


  • Also read NY Times's fascinating account "A Night for 'Stop the Presses!'" for a more detailed explanation of how the events unfolded in the print media.