01/08/2006 04:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Wrong When the Governor is Wrong: A Small Detail in the Mis-reporting of the Miners' Deaths

...If a producer from CNN had been hanging out with Betsy Wagoner, trying to get someone on the record with the news that the miners were alive, and discovering, as she did, that no one from the rescue operation would confirm it, the story that went out Tuesday night might, possibly, have been different...

There's a little detail in the misreporting of the West Virgina miners' deaths that you should know about. (A good overview is here, and here. Links to the explanations editors gave are here.)

What Becky Wagoner, the reporter for the local daily, did is stay put. She was covering the rescue for the Inter-Mountain newspaper of Elkins, W.Va., which has a newsroom population of 21 and a circulation of 11,000 or so. Instead of running to the church, where the "human" story was supposed to be, and where the families said they had heard the miners were alive, she remained in the briefing room where all previous updates had been received: (From Editor & Publisher.)

"We heard that they were found alive through CNN, then it snowballed to ABC, then FOX and it was like a house afire," recalled Wagoner, who said she was at the media information center set up by the mine's operators, International Coal Group Inc., when the reports spread.

"A lot of the media left to go to the church where family members were located, but I stayed put because this was where every official news conference was given--and we never got anything official here," she said.

No update about miners being found alive appeared on the Inter-Mountain's web site, said Wagoner and her editor, Linda Skidmore.

What Becky Wagoner did (and didn't do) is a small detail, but not an insignificant one. Some journalists, like Amanda Bennett, the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer--which reported "Joy at mine: 12 are alive"-- have been asking:. "Was there anybody who was there who got it any differently?"

There was, but are you interested?

The reporters and camera crews fled to the church because that's where the story was. Wagoner stayed in the place where the information was being given out. Maybe that's a difference worth reflecting on.

Among those who ought to be curious about it is Anderson Cooper, who was on the air at the time for CNN, and Jonathan Klein, his boss and the head of CNN/US. They reported for three hours the wrong information: that twelve miners were found alive. AP and other networks did the same.

Defending their performance, CNN people have said that primary responsibility rests with the mining company, which did not correct the false reports for two and a half hours, and elected officials, who passed along faulty information. I agree with that. As I wrote at my weblog, PressThink: "I don't blame the news media for initially false information about the West Virginia mining disaster. I blame confusion, exhaustion, human emotion and poor decision-making by company officials."

But then CNN people (like their counterparts at the AP) have made a second observation: that their mistake was unavoidable. This I do not agree with. (Neither does Howard Kurtz. Also see the Reliable Sources transcript, and Greg Mitchell's column in E & P.)

If a producer from CNN had been hanging out with Becky Wagoner, trying to get someone on the record with the news that the miners were alive, and discovering, as she did, that no one from the rescue operation would confirm it, the story that went out Tuesday night might, possibly, have been different.

Sunday night I watched CNN Presents, an hour-long special recapping the Sago mine disaster. When they get to the part where the network "learns" that a miracle had happened, and the men were alive, the producers of the one-hour special have no tape to show. There is no footage of an authorized knower saying it. Nobody ever announced it. We see people rejoicing who said they had heard about it. Townspeople are seen thanking god. There are clips of the Governor, but he's talking about the one man who was rescued. CNN is so empty-handed in documenting how it knew the men were alive that the producers resort to playing audio tapes of a dispatcher's voice for what seems to be an ambulance service, and someone named "caller" (an unidentified voice) is heard saying... that's what we heard, yeah, 12 alive.

Gal Beckerman of CJR Daily made a similar point about the nation's newspapers and their faulty headlines. "A close reading of the articles themselves tells the tale of how journalists bungled the story," he wrote. "In most, there are no sources at all for the information; in some, the sources are the rumors spread by frantic family members. Those sorts of sources are hardly a solid basis for headlines screaming, 'They're Alive!'" Or for concluding: this mistake was unavoidable.

Klein's speech to CNN staff ought to be: "We screwed this up, although we came out looking okay because the Governor was wrong, and we had a wrong Congress person too. Their sources were as bad as our sources.

"We're CNN; we're supposed to be more reliable than anyone. Our slogan isn't 'Wrong when the Governor's wrong.' Statesmen are supposed to watch us to find out what's going on in their world.

"It is unacceptable to me that for three hours of live television, with our top talent presiding, we've got twelve men alive reported as truth, and we never saw those men, no ambulances for them ever moved, and we had no real confirmation. Just a bunch of people saying: yeah, that's what we heard.

"No one from inside the rescue operation was putting his name, or his ass on the line with those facts. But we did not report that. Yet we put our ass and our name on the line, and Anderson's, when had almost no facts.

"Totally unccceptable..." Klein ought to be saying. And if I'm Anderson Cooper I'm standing right next to him nodding my head. But this is what Cooper actually said in a first-person "Behind the Scenes" account he wrote on Jan. 5:

For those of us in the media, I'm not sure what we could have done to keep this news from spreading like it did.

Well, I'm not sure, either. But it might have helped, a little, if CNN had reported "the families say they've been told their loved ones are alive, and the governor said he heard the same thing, but we have gotten no confirmation from anyone connected with the rescue operation." If they had stuck a microphone in front of Becky Wagoner of the Inter-Mountain newspaper she might have said something like that. Cooper wrote:

When you have the governor of the state giving you the thumbs-up, a congresswoman talking about this on air, hundreds of relatives and family members jubilant, some of who received calls from mining officials, it's tough to ignore what they're saying.

There is only so much you can do short of seeing firsthand who is alive and who isn't. We made requests to have access to the rescue operation, but they were denied.

At some point, you have to rely on officials and the people you come in contact with. We had more reporters on this story and in more places than anyone else -- Randi Kaye, Joe Johns, Sanjay Gupta interviewing the doctor.

"There is only so much you can do" says CNN's franchise player. My understanding of a network anchorman's job during a live news event is to keep track of what we know, how we know it, what we don't know yet, and what we're learning for the first time. Journalistically, this is why we need them. Cooper showed no signs of bearing this skill, and yet he seems satisfied that he did all he could.

And from the boss of the operation there is this, via Editor & Publisher:

Most bullish of all was CNN president Jonathan Klein, who offered no apologies and hailed his cable network's performance, which resulted in three hours of faulty coverage. He said the sourcing of the report that the men were alive was "pretty solid," adding: "This situation points to the strength of TV news coverage because we were able to correct as better information developed."

When at 3:00 am a townswoman walked up to Anderson Cooper and told him--live--that he had been reporting a false miracle this showed, according to Klein, the strength's of CNN. As Jeff Jarvis has written, with coverage like that, "It's not the news that's live; it's the process of figuring out what to believe that's live."

And the figuring out goes on. So if someone tells you it was unavoidable, mention Becky Wagoner, will you?
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. His weblog is PressThink. He wrote about the news media and the disaster in West Virginia in his post, "Today, we fell short." vs. "I'm not seeing any obvious missteps."