The double tragedy in West Virginia

How the media helped to make a bad situation worse.

Helen Searls

Topics USA

There was a double tragedy in West Virginia this week. There was the tragedy of 12 miners dying in an underground accident, and there was the tragedy of their loved ones mistakenly being told that the men were still alive.

The mine-owners, International Coal Group Inc, faced a torrent of criticism for the miscommunication debacle. In a press conference following the tragic events on Tuesday night, Bennett K Hatfield, president of the group, repeatedly apologised for the series of errors which led the families to believe that their loved ones had survived. He said this had been the worst day of his life, praised rescue workers for risking their lives to save others, and expressed deep sorrow that 12 miners had died. He also took responsibility for falsely raising the families’ hopes.

Journalists pressed Hatfield to explain exactly how he had misled the world into believing that a miracle rescue had occurred. But as more and more evidence has emerged about what happened in the small hours of Wednesday morning, it is clear that the journalists should question their own actions too: they played as big a part in the miscommunication nightmare as did the mine-owning company.

On Tuesday, having already found one dead miner, rescuers struggled to reach 12 miners still trapped underground. Around 11.45pm that night, after life-risking efforts, the rescue team finally reached the spot where they believed the remaining 12 trapped miners had gathered after the explosion. Speaking through full-face gas masks, the team relayed a message via another mid-point team to the command centre above ground, saying they had heard some moaning, the 12 had been found and that they now were checking for vital signs. Somewhere along the line this message got garbled and was heard in the command centre as: ’12 miners are alive.’

Jubilation broke out at the command centre but no communiqué was issued. Fatefully, one or more individuals in the centre, reportedly including individuals from the mine company, phoned friends in the community to pass on what they believed was good news. The officials in charge of communication, however, did not at this point think it appropriate to issue a statement. Forty minutes later, the rescue team carried the sole survivor to a spot in the mine where they could speak without masks. Again they communicated to the command centre, but this time they clearly stated that only one miner was alive and 11 were dead.

Faced with what appeared to be two conflicting statements the command centre again decided to make no official statement until they were able to determine which one was correct. They erred – wrongly as it turned out – on the side of hoping against hope that the second message may have been wrong.

At the nearby church where the families were gathered, however, individuals had received cellphone calls from someone in the centre. Suddenly the cry went up: ‘They’re alive!’ The Washington Post reported that in an instant everyone was cheering, hugging and crying. News from the church leaked to the West Virginia Governor’s office. At first, the governor was apparently sceptical of the news, but he later admitted that once everyone was celebrating he got equally caught up in the euphoria.

All of this is understandable: the families had received what they considered to be very good news from an individual at the command centre. Local people were celebrating what appeared to be a local miracle. Journalists, however, managed to make this bad situation even worse. They were the only true outsiders who could have asked probing questions or called for evidence. But within minutes of the cellphone call to the church, the wires and networks started buzzing with the story that the 12 miners were alive and that the miracle everyone prayed for had occurred.

Immersed in the emotionalism of the moment journalists rushed to file, hoping to be the first to spread the good news. In the heat of the moment they became indistinguishable from those around them. As rapidly as 11.59pm, an AP headline said: ‘Families Say 12 W.Va. Miners Found Alive.’ By 12.34am the headline was firmed up to ‘12 Trapped W.Va. Miners Found Alive’. As East Coast printing deadlines loomed, papers rushed to change their headlines. ‘“Alive!” Miners Beat the Odds’, boomed USA Today. Newsday ran with ‘Miracle in the Mine’. The more sedate Washington Post‘s headline read: ‘12 Found Alive in W. Va. Coal Mine.’

The attachment of the journalists to this seemingly good news story was palpable. Perhaps the worst expression of this was the repeatedly aired footage of a reporter for Fox News talking to a child with an expression of total joy across his face, saying: ‘Your daddy is alive! Your daddy is alive!’ By the time I heard the story at 1.08am, not only were we told that the miners were alive but that the men had come through their ordeal completely unscathed. Apparently they would need no medical attention and would be coming directly from the mine to the church to greet their loved ones.

Even though the story defied rational explanation, and had no source other than ‘the families in the church’ or ‘the Governor (who, by the way, got the story from the families in the church)’, it quickly became established as truth. It seems that very few if any journalists, producers or news editors asked probing questions about the story’s authenticity. There may have been a cellphone call from someone in the command centre to a friend in the church, but why hadn’t the command centre in charge of the rescue operation made an official statement?

For three hours there was saturation coverage of a miracle rescue that only came to an end when mine boss Bennett Hatfield went to the church to explain the sad events of the night.

In a harshly critical article, the editor of Editor and Publisher called the night ‘one of the most disturbing media performances of its kind in recent years’. Yet in the wake of the nightmare, many media organisations have defended their actions, saying that under the same circumstances they would do the same again. In contrast to the sorrow expressed by the mine boss, Editor and Publisher notes that CNN president Jonathan Klein offered no apologies, instead saying: ‘This situation points to the strength of TV news coverage because we were able to correct as better information developed.’ (2)

(1) Media Report Miracle Mine Rescue, Then Carry the Tragic Truth, Editor and Publisher, 4 January 2006

(2) Newspapers Regret, and Defend, Mine Rescue ‘Debacle’, Editor and Publisher, 5 January 2006

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Topics USA


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