NPR newscasts and the NPR Web site are the places to go for breaking news. But some listeners found that both handled the West Virginia mine disaster story with some serious missteps.
The tragic denouement of the story came in the early hours of Wednesday, Jan. 4. Up to that point, it had been unknown whether the 13 miners had survived, or had died underground. Then came reports that most had survived, but hours later, this was changed. Only one miner survived. Throughout this critical period, NPR newscasts seemed unable to clarify what exactly was happening.
That elicited e-mails about the accuracy, timeliness and appropriateness of the coverage — both on the radio and on NPR's Web site.
To be fair, this was a very difficult story to cover. NPR's Frank Langfitt reported the story for Morning Edition. Dan Heyman from West Virginia Public Radio filed for the hourly newscasts. Langfitt says without a reliable statement from the mine owners, rumors substituted for hard facts:
The original source was the family members. They say they got it from a mine foreman at the church, whose name they could not recall. I think I had three family sources attributing it to a mine foreman.
The major sourcing problem on this story was that we had no mine company source we could access except for the occasional press conference. This is a relatively new company and apparently did not have a press officer. The president, Ben Hatfield, was handling the news conferences with little assistance.
Dan Heyman of West Virginia Public Radio agrees that there was no way to confirm any of the rumors. The reporters were kept in a church a mile away from the mine. They were able to glean snippets of information from rescue workers, police and relatives — none of whom were able to provide any hard information.
NPR Newscast Timeline
Here is how NPR newscasts began each of its reports throughout the early hours of Jan. 4:
Rescuers have found the body of one miner in West Virginia, but company officials say there is no definite word on the fate of the remaining 12.
Family members outside a West Virginia mine receive some good news (sounds of cheering, screaming), 12 of 13 workers trapped at the Sago mine in West Virginia since Monday are alive.
But in the next newscast, the first indications that this story may not have the hoped-for happy ending began to emerge:
Twelve of 13 miners, trapped in a West Virginia coal mine since Monday morning, have been found alive. Rescuers have taken at least one miner to a local hospital for observation. Dan Heyman of West Virginia Public Broadcasting says the good news came as mining officials and the state's governor who cautioned against high hopes.
By 3 a.m., the changing nature of the story began to emerge, but only at the end of the report, leaving listeners wondering what was going on:
Officials in Tallmansville, W. Va., told families of workers trapped in a coal mine since Monday that all but one miner had survived. But only one worker had been pulled out alive today. Dan Heyman of West Virginia Public Broadcasting says mining officials had explained to the families how the workers could have stayed in the shaft for so long.
Dan Heyman: We know that they survived the blast and that they left the rail car that they were going — uh — traveling in, in the mine, in and that the car was undamaged. We don't know where they went off after that point and we don't know how they survived. Presumably they found a place where air that wasn't toxic and they basically sealed themselves up in a room and waited.
Family members in the West Virginia town are now being told that there is only one survivor from the coal mine disaster (emphasis mine).
Listeners were justifiably appalled that the story could take such a complete turn without further explanation.
By 7 a.m. Eastern the tragic result was confirmed. But the manner in which NPR reported to a very large audience, made listeners angrier and more confused. There was even confusion about the number of miners involved:
There were tears of joy in Tallmansville, W.Va., last night when word spread that 11 of 12 trapped coal miners had been found alive. Bells rang out at the Sago Baptist church where relatives had been waiting since Monday to hear word on their loved ones. But 3 hours later, the mood turned to shock and anger when mining officials announced there had been a miscommunication. Eleven of the miners had, in fact, died.
Many listeners were upset. The newscasts inserted audio of pealing church bells (a sign of joy and celebration), then suddenly shifted and reported that 12 miners were dead.
'Shocked and Angry...'
Melissa Stanhope said she was:
...appalled by your reporting this morning (Jan. 4). I was listening intently to hear the 7 a.m. news report on my local radio station to find out the fate of the miners in WV. The poor wording of your news about the miners led me, also, to believe that 12 had survived. I was shocked and angry to have felt like I was "tricked" by your news just as those poor families were in WV. I have never felt more mislead. I noticed the 7:30 a.m. news report noted that "euphoria immediately turned to ...(horror). I can only hope this type of reporting will not be repeated. I cannot believe I am the only one to have misinterpreted your report. I must also say that I have never written to any radio program in my life but this was such an egregious error and I am still fuming about it.
And from a listener in Colorado:
Leading the 8:30 a.m. newscast today (1/4) (10:30 Eastern), was the story of the WV miners. The first sound was of bells ringing out in that small town, then a bit of vague language about the men, THEN word that it was all a big misunderstanding and that the miners were dead. For several seconds, I was elated that the men had survived. I feel NPR took me on a rather pointless emotional rollercoaster. The lead should have been that they died... and, later in the story, that there had been a misunderstanding... But, is it right to tell that story in the same order... taking listeners on that same gut-wrenching ride?
Greg Peppers is in charge of NPR newscasts. He says that the Kassell introduction gave listeners an accurate sense of what it must have been like in Tallmansville:
I heard the newscast live this morning and listened back to it again after the e-mail [from Ms. Stanhope] was forwarded to me. I didn't find it offensive at all. I found the sound helped set up the story. It took the listener to the scene of the event and helped him/her understand what the relatives of the miners were going through. The copy was also short enough not to leave the listener thinking for long that the miners had in fact been found dead. It wasn't as if we were setting up a three or four minute [newsmagazine] piece on the same story only to deliver the bad news 2 1/2 minutes in.
But many heard it differently. After the terrible details were finally known, NPR newscasts continued to lead with the cruel fiction of the misreported miracle. This represents, in my opinion, a lack of sensitivity for the miners and their families.
How Does NPR Know?
What was missing in all of these reports was attribution.
In a story like this, good reporting requires some indication of how NPR knows what it is stating. Are the details from the miners' families? From the coal company? From wire service reports? When a story is so strongly surrounded by rumors, as this one was, listeners have a legitimate expectation to know what sources NPR relies upon for its newscasts.
In my experience, listeners are prepared — to a certain extent — to accept candor from a news organization. Telling the listeners what is known, and what is not, is essential in a story that is still unresolved at the time the newscast goes to air.
Reporting tragedies, such as the mine disaster, is always fraught with accusations of journalistic insensitivity: if the reporting is too close, then it feels manipulative and sensationalistic. If it is too detached, it lacks the empathic human quality that can make for powerful reporting. If the story breaks too quickly for the news to provide any context, listeners can often be left confused. Many listeners thought that NPR newscasts were unable to find an appropriate way to report this story.
Listeners also went to the NPR Web site for updates and the latest developments.
But they tell me there were some mistakes there as well.
Don Schricker writes that on the NPR Web site, a Morning Edition interview with Renee Montagne was headlined: "Impact on the Mining Industry." But the interview was about the nature of the eventual investigation into the cause of the accident.
It was soon corrected to: "Investigation Looms After Sago Mine Deaths" and an online editor noted that the nature of the interview changed from what was first expected overnight to what actually came in.
Another online listener noted that:
The [Web site story], "Twelve Men Found Dead in West Virginia Coal Mine" states "Jubilant family members celebrated news that 12 miners were pulled alive from the scene of an underground explosion, only to learn nearly three hours later that they had been misled..."
I think the word "misled" is unfair. Try "misinformed." I doubt whoever gave the family members that information [did it] out of malice, which is what misled implies.
That term "misled" was also changed by an online editor as per the listener's suggestion.
Getting It Right for the Next Time
Stories such as this one, where information from the site is either lacking or largely hearsay, represents a challenge to any news organization. The pressure to move the story to its conclusion is enormous. It takes experience, acumen, patience and courage to tell one's editor to back off until the facts are verified.
From the evidence in hand, NPR did not overcome many of these obstacles in its breaking coverage of this story. In his reply to my query about the reporting of this sad event, NPR's Frank Langfitt voiced a caution that should be heeded in this story and for the next time:
Under the circumstances, the old journalist's adage, "report what you know, not what you think you know" really applied. After the family members said the miners were alive, it was best to wait for confirmation from the company.