Monday, January 09, 2006

Miner Miracles

Written Thursday 5/1.

The mine disaster communications disaster is one of the most interesting things I've seen on TV all year. (Or all last year, whatever.) But I'm a breaking-news-junkie, so this was my idea of entertainment.

What's going on? Who got it so wrong? Will the media do its job or will it take some blogger to track down who originally said what to whom?

But by my count it only took about an hour from the discovery that only one was alive until the post-mortems started (sorry for the language, but that's what people call them). By the time the company man got up to do his press conference, you could hear from the tone of the questions that journalists weren't happy.

It seems the news that the 12 miners were "alive" broke while I was at work. It was all over the cable news channels when I got home. It lead the 5.30 pm Sky news bulletin, but then they broke in at about 5.57pm to say that only one was alive. Sky cut to Sky UK.

We watched that for a few minutes, but because it was 6pm, I checked out the two free-to-air channels. Neither was leading with the story, but Seven got to it before 6.15, but they ran the outdated "miracle rescue" story. I didn't see what Nine ran.

After a while I switched over to CNN, which was showing Anderson Cooper 360 from CNN US. Anderson was doing his usual "people are upset about this so I will be, too" routine, but he was the first I heard to raise the important point, which was that the company shouldn't have waited three hours to come out - they should have hosed down what they knew to be speculation as soon as they realised what was being speculated upon. I can understand the company man's reasoning when he says that after the first news, they didn't want to make an announcement until they had the facts, but that presupposes that there are only two courses of action. It doesn't take the preferred "We just don't know, we can't confirm that" into account.

Around 7pm, I checked out some websites, too see what they were saying. The New York times was still reporting the miracle story (in fact AFP/ABC/Reuters report that the New York Times print edition led with this story the next morning, too.) showed the problem with automated news aggregators: it had both the "all alive" and "all dead" stories from different sources, but the all-alive story was placed higher on the page probably due to more links or page-views or however their ranking algorithms work.

It was instructive being able to read the NYT's story after the true facts had started to come out. The NYT sourced the story to "family members" and a "State official". They quoted the official in the third par, but his words did not confirm that the miners were alive, only that they had been found and were being medically evaluated.

I think this is where the whole confusion came from - if you hear someone is being medically evaluated, I think you would think they were alive, but their condition beyond that was unknown. It now seems that the 'evaluation' had not even reached the basic stage of 'alive or dead?'.

The family members said they'd been told people were alive, but no one has traced the chain back yet.

The Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily will have a field day with this. Even the NYT runs a story sourced only to family members who had heard things from unidentified people and a state official who only says vague things?

But then again, the Governor of West Virginia was calling it a miracle. In situations like this, it would be reasonable to expect that a high official is plugged into the official networks. Thus the fact that he is celebrating and no hosing down speculation would been seen by many reasonable people as confiming the truth of what was said. After all, he could always have said "I don't know. I've heard what people are saying but no one has told me officially."

LATER (09/01/2006): As predicted, CJR Daily did have a field day. They, too, were asking where were the journalist's sources. And speaking of Anderson Cooper, one of the complaints about the whole thing was that there were too many celebrity anchormen there and not enough actual journalists...

Harry Shearer, writing at the Huffington Post, also asks similar questions. Harry's been focussing on New Orleans, so his questions are in the context of why, after the many retracted 'New Orleans is falling into anarchy' stories, weren't they more careful this time.


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