Jan 5, 2006

Scoop Mania: The Role Of The Press In Fueling The Sago Rumors

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Left: The entrance to the mine in Tallmansville, WV; photo courtesy of L'express.

(Toledo, OH) By now the story has been out for over 24 hours; unless you have been in hibernation for the past few days, you know that something went horribly wrong in the dissemination of the news regarding the status of the 13 miners trapped after an an underground explosion in Sago, WV.

Instead of passing along the news that 12 of the 13 workers were killed, the message was inverted. Hundreds of residents of the small Appalachian town spent several hours with a false sense that they had been party to a miracle, and then found themselves dragged to the opposite end of the emotions spectrum when the truth finally arrived like a helmet-to-helmet collision (historymike is still cringing from watching Matt Leinart get drilled on that tremendous hit he took in the Rose Bowl last night).

We may never know the original source of the false rumor, but one thing is certain: the members of the media and their drive for a scoop played an important part in the propagation of the spurious communication. The media is now camped out at the hospital in which sole survivor Randal McCloy clings to life, hoping to be the first to report on his condition.

As a journalist I have felt that all-consuming impulse to get the story out at any cost, and it is both exhilarating and sickening. During the October 15 riot in North Toledo, I was able to get some of the first written accounts of what was happening out to the world, which gave me a sense of importance, that I was a critical cog in the machine of knowledge.

Simultaneously, though, there were more than a few times when I wanted to stop being a journalist and play peacemaker; Toledo, after all, is the city in which I live and work, and I felt that my work as a journalist could be part of the reason the anger of the crowd crossed over into illegal activity. I was disturbed by the nonchalance of some of my fellow journalists, and felt like a vulture lurking near fresh carrion.

Anderson Cooper of CNN first "broke" the story of the false miracle, and was one of the first to get the correction. I like Cooper, and I think his from-the-hip blistering retort to a clueless Senator Mary Landrieu was dead on during her smarmy interview with him in the midst of the New Orleans disaster. However, Cooper in a way represents the very problem in Sago: this incessant itch to get the news first can cause recklessness with outcomes that are disturbing.

In my rush to get a story out once, I inadvertantly endangered someone. Luckily for me and the other person, the issue resolved itself, but I know firsthand the dangers of becoming entranced with the beautiful serenade of the Sirens.

Unfortunately in Sago, the song was too delightful for many members of the media to ignore, and hundreds of people suffered - in part - because reporters succumbed to the temptation of the scoop.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree, Mike. The media were just like vultures, and they do this at every tragedy. They just got cuaght this time.

Anonymous said...

The media isn't to blame for the misinformation. Many of the family members heard by way of mouth not by watching CNN or reading the NY times. The officials at the ICG, should have informed family and friends sooner, since they knew 20 minutes later that there was only one survivor. Put the blame where it belongs.

historymike said...

There's no doubt, anonymous #2, that ICG played the biggest role in this horrible mistake, and that the desire by family members for information put pressure on the company to give them something.

I remain convinced, though, that pressure from the media played as large a role as any of the other factors in producing this terrible error.

Anonymous said...

I disagree about blaming the media. The CEO screwed up in not setting up a good chain of communication. That's why smart corporations have crisis teams.

historymike said...

Agreed, anonymous. I think that ICG and Ben Hatfield were ill-prepared for what happened.

Having well-defined and controlled information dispersal systems is crucial (this coming from a journalist who tries to get past the gatekeepers).

Hooda Thunkit said...

It is indeed a sad story that might have been reported differently (accurately), had a relative of some or all of the reporters been in that mine.

Maybe, just maybe, the urge to be first with news will take a step back, if only for a little while...

I wouldn't bet the rent on it though; the need to be first will surely win out, most every time...

Stephanie said...

I agree, Mike. The ICG played a big part in this, but were not the only ones responsible for misinformation. In our fast-paced society it seems ever more prevalent for timeliness and a (possibly) false sense of urgency to out-weigh accuracy. This isn't always the case, but it seems to happen more and more often now.

Then again, that (the increase) may just be my perception of the matter.

M A F said...

Hello Mike, while my cartoon isn't quite worth a thousand words, your words are clearly worth a thousand pictures.

Tex said...

I don't think the Govornor helped either, he was in the church when the word came down that they were alive

historymike said...

Mac: Thanks, brother. I always enjoy your cartoons, though, and you will one day make us all say: "I remember that guy wa-a-a-y back when..."

Tex: Yes, the guv screwed up, although I think that he got swept up in the false euphoria. I guess he should get kudos for going there, though.