Much has been written in the aftermath of the tragic Sago mine disaster in West Virginia. It was a cruel nightmare for families and an almost untenable predicament for most daily newspapers.
What happened was the perfect miscommunication storm for print media. Television, in effect, gets a mulligan. Shelf life is not a concern. What was said five minutes ago is lost in the ether. “This just in” immediacy trumps all.
But deadline hell and breaking news is as bad as it gets in the newspaper business; that’s how Tom Dewey won the presidency and the Lightning lost the Stanley Cup final. Then add a major measure of human nature: being able to convey miraculously good news in an industry too often defined by all that goes awry in the world.
Thus we have headlines and drop heads such as: ( St. Petersburg Times ) “They’re alive! Miners found”/”Twelve of the West Virginia miners that had been trapped 260 feet below the surface are found hours after the body of one was recovered.” And such as: ( Tampa Tribune ) “12 Miners Survive Ordeal”/”Rescuers first found body of 1 from crew.”
Having said that, however, there is still the case for following the fundamentals, even – especially — in a worst-case crucible. When dealing with split-second decisions and less than take-it-to-the-bank sources, equivocation is a virtue. This isn’t Monday morning quarterbacking; this is a bet-hedging, journalistic rule of thumb.
Here’s how the Times-Tribune of Scranton (Penn.) handled it: “Families: Miners Alive”/”One body found, 12 allegedly living 41 hours after blast.”
When your source – amid a welter of emotions and a din of voices — is a family member or “they,” it’s imperative to include a qualifier. That’s the realistic best that can be done under such extenuating circumstances. The presses can only be held so long.
Sago mustn’t become shorthand for media screw-up, but a reminder for reflection. Nobody’s motives or ethics should be impugned. Nobody got it absolutely right; but some got it less wrong. And that matters.