- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

The news was dramatic but untrue: Faced with looming deadlines and conflicting information, the press treated an unsubstantiated report that 12 trapped West Virginia coal miners were alive as fact.

Newspapers and broadcasters alike were unable to verify the information Tuesday night, which was based on hopeful hearsay, misunderstood cell phone conversations among rescue workers and erroneous statements from Gov. Joe Manchin III.

Positive coverage lasted less than three hours, quashed when mine officials affirmed at 2:30 a.m. yesterday that only one man had survived entrapment after an explosion at the mine. The statement first was shared with the miners’ families waiting in a church and then with journalists at an impromptu press center.

The Associated Press initially reversed its somber accounts of prayer vigils after a telephone interview with Mr. Manchin, reporting, “Family members say 12 miners trapped after an explosion in West Virginia are alive” at 11:52 p.m. Tuesday — followed by 11 versions of the story.

By 2:57 a.m. yesterday, an amended AP news alert announced that “11 of the 12 coal miners who were initially thought to have survived an explosion in a coal mine have died. The sole survivor is hospitalized.”

Consider the source, say some.

“When the governor himself seems to confirm the information, there are not many among us who wouldn’t go with it,” said Al Tompkins of the Florida-based Poynter Institute, who reviewed about 400 newspaper front-page accounts of the story yesterday.

“As in Hurricane Katrina coverage, the media has painfully discovered that official sources can be wrong. It’s proof the press must not abandon traditional standards of accountability,” Mr. Tompkins said.

Treatment of the events varied.

“Newsday ran a big black box headlined ‘Miracle in the Mine’ in white. The Rocky Mountain News declared ‘They’re Alive.’ The Boston Globe, however, said the miners were ‘reportedly’ found alive. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette got it right by literally stopping the presses and waiting until the news cleared,” Mr. Tompkins said.

“Headlines in the Globe and Gazette may not be sexy, but at least they were true,” he added. “Still, the timing of the events couldn’t have been worse for press coverage.”

The Washington Times was among the majority of papers reporting that 12 miners had survived.

Meanwhile, CNN and other news channels scrambled to reverse their stories and amend on-screen graphics to read “tragedy” rather than “miracle.”

Critics piled on yesterday. Editor & Publisher magazine called the coverage “one of the most disturbing and disgraceful media performances of its kind,” while TV analyst Aaron Barnhart called on CNN to consider issuing a public apology.

• Jennifer Harper covers news media issues. Contact her at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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