Mine story turnaround bites newspapers
Published: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2006 at 10:38 p.m.
Newspaper headlines blared the good news: "They're alive" and "Miner miracle" and "Suddenly there is joy."
But hours after scores of newspapers, including The Gainesville Sun, published news that 12 of 13 trapped coal miners in West Virginia were found alive, the horrifying truth became apparent. Twelve of the 13 miners were dead, stunning family members and forcing news organizations to scramble to correct the record.
Some papers were able to stop the presses or trash editions that had the wrong information, while others corrected the error on their Web sites. The Sun published 3,000 copies of a four-page extra edition with the corrected story Wednesday morning, available at a number of area stores for 15 cents.
Miscommunication among rescue workers reportedly led to families being told the miners were alive, leading to a celebration with the West Virginia governor and newspapers going to press with reports they had been saved.
Journalism experts differed on whether the error was an honest mistake or evidence of reporters failing to properly check their facts.
Mistakes are often unavoidable in a breaking news story, said Terry Hynes, dean of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.
"There are all kinds of opportunities in today's world for mistakes to occur," she said.
But some commentators questioned whether reporters properly verified information before writing stories. Writing for the CJRDaily, a blog of the Columbia Journalism Review, Gal Beckerman said reporters relied on rumors spread by frantic family members.
"The old cliché says that it's better to be lucky than good," Beckerman wrote. "In this case, the press was neither."
The 2000 presidential election is another recent example of newspapers rushing an incorrect story into print, said Margaret Engel, managing editor of the Newseum, a museum of news. Some stories called the election when in fact a recount delayed the official results for weeks.
But the fact that those papers are sold as collector's items on the eBay online auction site shows they are rare, Engel said.
"The tale of this is not how frequently it happens, but how rarely it happens," she said.
In the case of the miners, the issue is merely that most newspaper printers have gone home for the night by 3 a.m., she said, when the correct news became apparent. That meant East Coast papers largely had the news wrong and West Coast papers had it correct."The fault line looks to be the mountain states," she said.
Newspapers that printed the incorrect story responded in different ways. The Boston Globe trashed about 30,000 wrong papers and replaced them with corrected versions. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stopped the presses in time for nearly half of its 256,000 papers to be corrected.
The Sun published a four-page extra edition available for the lunch crowd at retail locations. The paper has published a handful of extra editions in recent years, for such events as the O.J. Simpson verdict and 1996 University of Florida national football championship, but this was the first to correct a mistake, said Executive Editor Jim Osteen.
The Guardian weekly newspaper also was being printed Wednesday, he said, giving The Sun a window in which it had presses ready to publish an extra edition. That, combined with the heightened interest in the story and complete reversal of the news, led to the decision, he said.
Hynes said she experienced a similar situation as an editor of a newspaper in Fullerton, Calif. The paper's first edition said three people had been killed on a college campus there. Within an hour, she said, the news that seven people had actually died forced the paper to release a corrected edition.
Such stories reveal the strength and weakness of newspapers, said William McKeen, chairman of UF's journalism department. Newspapers aren't as good as broadcast and Internet media on breaking news, he said, but can be much better with more substantial stories in the days following an event.
Hynes said attention should be directed toward the mining company, which seemingly lacked a crisis plan to prevent incorrect information from being released.
"A sophisticated crisis communications center would have been issuing updates regularly," she said. "They needed to understand what kind of information was getting out."
A series of miscommunications between rescue workers reportedly led to news spreading that all the miners had been found alive. Family members celebrated by ringing church bells and singing hymns, before the mining company issued the correct information nearly three hours later.
The company bore responsibility for not correcting the rumor sooner, said Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values for The Poynter Institute, a journalism institute in St. Petersburg.
"When the church bells started ringing, when the people started singing, they weren't doing that because of news reports," he said.
Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@ gvillesun.com
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