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January 4, 2006
Which Tragedy?

The USA Today headline speaks volumes about the sad state of today's American media in on-the-spot recording when it states, "Media forced to explain inaccurate reports on tragedy" -- and we're forced to ask, "Which tragedy?" In this case, USA Today is speaking about the tragic reporting that gave a nation false hope that twelve miners had miraculously survived an explosion in another tunnel:

Newspapers, wire services and cable news networks all failed in one degree or another to do their jobs properly when they reported that 12 men had survived the coal mine disaster in West Virginia, media critics and chastened editors say.

The collective failure was most apparent Wednesday morning on front pages across the nation. Headlines, including in about 45% of USA TODAY's 2.2 million copies, proclaimed the miners were alive. Other newspapers that put similar reports on their front pages in at least some editions include The New York Times, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and The Washington Post. ...

Few of those stories raised doubts about the report's credibility. Most did not make clear to readers, for instance, that the news was based on secondhand accounts from family members of the trapped miners just before midnight ET Tuesday. Officials from the company that owned the mine had not confirmed that the men were alive. ...

"The job of reporters and editors is to stop and say 'we've got some possible good news, but it's not confirmed yet,' " Mitchell said later Wednesday in an interview. "That really didn't happen."

Mitchell thinks reporters and editors "got carried away" by what appeared to be miraculous news. Newspapers were also under deadline pressure, he said. Many were in the process of printing Wednesday's edition as the news was breaking.

What happened? A foreman heard a report from the rescue team on the squawk box and misunderstood what was meant by the report. He then called relatives by cell phone, who happened to be at the church with other family and friends of the lost miners, and word of the "miracle" spread like wildfire. The families told the reporters, who forgot that they are supposed to verify rumors before putting them on air as fact. Some even heard from the mine company that they would not confirm that anyone had survived but reported the miracle anyway. As the Anchoress noted, the reporters again showed a preference for emoting rather than reporting -- a tactic they celebrated during their so-called "reporting" of Hurrican Katrina.

And that's where the headline could just as easily have applied. Let's recall the number of myths reported by the Exempt Media during Katrina and the aftermath, a collection of disproven memes that still cloud the actual facts of what happened during the worst natural disaster in at least twenty years:

* Children getting raped and killed in the Superdome: urban legend
* Black people turning cannibal to survive: myth started by Randall Robinson
* Toxic flood waters that kill on contact: never happened
* Levees overflowed: myth
* The poor and black died disproportionately: false
* Snipers on a bridge targeting rescuers: shot down

So again, I ask in response to USA Today's headline -- which tragedy requires the explanation of media incompetence? I'd say both.

UPDATE: Lori Byrd explains why we won't get any explanations about Katrina reporting.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 4, 2006 9:53 PM

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