« Who lost Russia? | Main | Lessons from the Sago mine debacle »


How the press got the "Miracle at Sago" wrong


The banner headline of my morning copy of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reads: "MIRACLE AT SAGO: 12 MINERS ALIVE."

Would that it were so.

No doubt there will be many inquiries into how the mainstream media and the governor's office wound up going forward with the "miracle" story in the absence of firm evidence that the miners were alive.

But here's my reconstruction of events; I doubt it will be substantially disproved by further investigation.

(1) Someone (or several someones) had been glued to a police scanner, monitoring the reports from the rescue team.

(2) They heard something that sounded like "We've found the rest of the miners. We're checking for vital signs." (They may have also heard that at least one of the 12 was showing signs of life.)

(3) They interpreted this information to mean that all 12 were miraculously alive.

(4) They ran to the Sago Baptist Church to deliver the good news. Shouting and bell ringing ensued.

(5) Reporters on the scene at the church interpreted this to mean that official word had come down to the families. (No one could be so cruel as to misinform them, right?)

And, well, the whole thing just snowballed from there.

Had the P-G editors been reading their own newspaper, they would have known that it was a report generated by someone listening to a police scanner that first broke the Sago mine story. And they might have been a little more sceptical about how untrained individuals, listening to scanner reports, could easily misinterpret jargon-rich radio chatter. Or how easily such misinformation could infect a small community desperately clinging to hope.

Miracles do occasionally happen, of course.

But journalists need to be skeptical of them—or risk losing the "professional" status they so often adduce when criticizing their pajama-clad counterparts.

UPDATE: Of course, the P-G was just one of many MSM outlets that took the "miracle" bait. The New York Times and The Washington Post fell for it too. Editor & Publisher has all the embarrassing details. Kevin Aylward at Wizbang has compiled a spectacular anthology of wrong headlines (23 by my count).

UPDATE (11:33 am): Michelle Malkin has a good roundup from the blogosphere. I'm not sure I agree with Michelle's contention that "the coal mining company, International Coal Group, has a lot to answer for," at least from an informational perspective. (Whether they may be liable for any safety violations is a completely different issue.) From what I've been able to glean, there's nothing to indicate International Coal did anything to fuel the midnight euphoria, except to report (apparantly accurately) that some of the miners may have been able to find refuge elsewhere in the mine. Once the "miracle" frenzy began around midnight, however, it seems to have taken quite an effort on their part to rein in the media's unfounded speculation. No one, however, seems to be considering the scanner scenario as the likely cause of the rumors.

UPDATE (1:25 pm): An updated account by AP reporter Jennifer C. Yates would seem to confirm, in broad outlines, the scenario I outlined above:

Ben Hatfield, chief executive of mine owner International Coal Group, blamed the wrong information on a "miscommunication." The news spread after people overheard cell phone calls, he said. In reality, rescuers had only confirmed finding 12 miners and were checking their vital signs. At least two family members in the church said they received cell phone calls from a mine foreman.

"That information spread like wildfire, because it had come from the command center," he said.

The "cell phone calls" people may have "overheard" from the command center , however, were more likely police-frequency radio transmissions intercepted by scanner listeners, including the "mine foreman" cited above (who was unlikely to have been given access to the command center). That information was subsequently transmitted by cell phone to families, reporters and other interested parties.

Police scanners and two-way radios are a major source of information in most rural communities; in fact, these "alternative media" were flourishing in red-state America decades ahead of cell phones, weblogs, podcasts and the like. Just go to any small-town barbershop in West Virginia, and you're likely to have your hair cut to the accompaniment of a police-frequency broadcast—punctuated by color commentary from the gentleman wielding the scissors.

UPDATE: John Cole at Balloon Juice shares my scanner theory. He writes:

There seems to be a lot of confusion as to how the families ‘found out’ the false information to begin with. From what I understand, and I have watched this non-stop and listened to the local radio, the families were informed by some well-meaning bystander, and not through official channels. This is what I believe to be true (of course, I may be wrong) at this point:

The rescuers thousands of feet in the mine were communicating on an open channel that could be picked up by any radio scanner or some form of two-way communication. I am unsure if there were actual loudspeakers at the entrance to the mine that broadcast their communication, but I do know that the people in the HQ had an open speaker for everyone in the room to hear, and any State Trooper, EMT, Fireman, or other rescue worker of state and federal official with a police style scanner could monitor the communications. Likewise, any private citizen with a similar device could do the same. At any rate, someone heard the communication from the folks deep in the mine when they discovered the 12 men and misinterpreted what the rescuers said. Someone then ran into the church yelling “They’re Alive.”


UPDATE (2:50 pm): Glenn Reynolds writes: "If bloggers had made these kinds of mistakes, Big-Media folks would be pointing them out as evidence that the blogosphere can't be trusted. But where were all those editors, filters, and fact-checkers?" Captain Ed adds: "This news comes about as cruelly as anyone could have contrived. When I went to bed last night, unfortunately very late, the news had come across the wires that the men had been located alive but in need of medical attention—not surprising, under the circumstances. The television showed pictures of the families and communities celebrating with tears of joy, and it was easy to join them. How that could have gotten screwed up [see above] remains to be seen, but they are now irate as well as devastated by their loss—made double by their celebrations."

UPDATE (3:25 pm): Joe Strupp has a follow-up story in Editor & Publisher this afternoon about an Elkins, West Virginia, newspaper that refused to bite on the "miracle" story: "The editor noted that part of her skepticism about the miracle rescue stemmed from a history in the area of people passing on information they believe to be true with little or no sourcing. 'We get a lot of people here who sometimes believe they have an inside story because they hear it on a police scanner [My emphasis. RM] or listen to a conversation,' Skidmore said. 'We know to be cautious of those situations.'" Indeed.

Posted by Rodger on January 4, 2006 at 08:16 AM | Permalink


Your update is spot on. MM somehow seems to think that Co. workers in the command center were aware of the early reports. News flash here - folks in crisis/command centers don't watch CNN to see what's going on - they're involved w/the task at hand.
Once they confirmed the status of the miners, then, and only then, would they have made any comment. Any functional adult would have done the same....
To hold the Co. responsible in some way for "not correcting the info sooner" is just foul, twisted logic.

FROM THE BLOGDESK: "Jess" clearly comments from a considerable background in corporate media relations. I've handled similar situations in my own career in corporate communications—though, thankfully, none as difficult or as emotionally fraught as this one. And's he's right: If you're glued to the cable news channels, you're not doing your job—which is to stay on top of the actual situation on the ground (or, in this case, under the ground).

Posted by: Jess | Jan 4, 2006 11:50:13 AM

As I posted at Wizbang, Kevin's list of newspapers that "got it wrong" is very misleading. The majority of those papers were running with a wire story, either from AP or the Chicago Tribune. What exactly were they supposed to do at 2:30 in the morning, particularly considering that the scene was chaos? Were they supposed to put a reporter on a plane? You make it seem as if every breaking news wire story immediately gets fact checked by each individual paper. I haven't worked in a news room in a while, but I'd be surprised if that's the case.

And several papers, including the Boston Globe, qualified the news. The Globe said "reportedly" found alive, and attributed the news to family members in the lede.

FROM THE BLOGDESK: I don't necessarily see how going with a wire story instead of sending staff reporters absolves a paper of its responsibility to present accurate, verifiable news to its readers. All the same, many major dailies—including The New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—did send staff reporters, all of whom fell for the "miracle" story, along with their editors. If this were a simple, excusable lapse in one or two newsrooms, working at a late hour, a trade publication like Editor & Publisher would take no notice of it. As it was, however, they dubbed it "one of the most disturbing media performances of its kind in recent years." By comparison, Kevin's and my criticism has been fairly reserved.

Posted by: Chris | Jan 4, 2006 6:37:54 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.