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Tom Lindley
national editor

J.B. Blosser Bittner
deputy national editor

Bill Ketter
CNHI vice president for editorial

February 16, 2006 12:54 pm

Media discuss coverage of the Sago Mine explosion

A panel of national journalists met at WVU to talk about and sometimes defend their coverage of the Sago mine disaster.

By Justin McLaughlin
CNHI News Service

MORGANTOWN, W.V."There's only one," Lynette Roby, a Tallmansville, W.Va. resident, told Anderson Cooper live on CNN at 2:46 in the morning Jan. 4.

She had just broken the news to the world. Joyous reports that the men trapped in the Sago Mine for more than 40 hours had been found alive were completely wrong. What the journalists, the families and country had believed for three hours wasn't true. Cooper appeared stunned. So was CNN correspondent Randi Kaye.

That night, outside the Sago Baptist Church in Tallmansville, she was listening to Cooper's interview with Roby through an ear piece.

"I heard this unfolding on our air and I must have said something out loud because there was a print photographer standing beside me and he said, 'Did you just say what I think you said?' and I said, 'I think there's only one alive,'" Kaye told a packed crowd at the Mountainlair Ballrooms at West Virginia University Monday night.

"Then one of our producers was screaming in my ear, 'Get confirmation. Get confirmation,'" Kaye said.

Something had gone horribly wrong. For hours, family members believed their loved ones were alive. Eighty percent of the country's newspapers ran wrong headlines that morning, according to the Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride.

In "Searching for a Miracle: Media Coverage of the Sago Mine Disaster," national and regional journalists came to WVU Monday as part of the school's "Festival of Ideas" lecture series to talk about their experiences in Tallmansville and sometimes defend their role in spreading false information.

McBride, Poynter's ethics group leader, moderated the discussion.

"I want to acknowledge that there's a lot of anger and frustration about how things unfolded that night in the media," McBride said. "We're not going to fix that. This isn't a witch hunt."

From the beginning, the journalists said, they could tell Sago wasn't going to be like other stories.

"It's always sobering to drive up and before you see the scene you're going to cover, you see tents and satellite trucks. It's very uncomfortable," CBS reporter Sharyn Alfonsi said.

"There was nobody in charge at Sago. We all just arrived and camped out on people's lawns. Some bad things happened to the families because of that," Scott Finn, a statehouse reporter at the Charleston Gazette, said.

They described the scene outside the Baptist church that the miners friends and families were using as a meeting place as a kind of gauntlet. Family members had to walk pass the press to get in and out of the church, and were often swamped by cameras and tape recorders.

That was partially because official sources of information were few and far between, the reporters said.

"They (the families) were our only source," said Mike Solmson, a CBS producer.

"There was no one source and nobody seemed to be getting it right," Alfonsi added.

Kaye described "confirmation behavior" they were seeing on the ground at Sago, like a thumbs up from Governor Joe Manchin and the ringing of church bells that indicated that information about the 12 miners being alive was true. At one point, Alfonsi said a woman she described as a nurse gave the CBS crew descriptions of different miners' medical conditions as they were being pulled out of the mine "alive."

But none of it was true.

"It was almost like mass hysteria. You wanted to believe they were alive," said Derek Rose, a reporter from the New York Daily News.

But should they have been more skeptical, more cynical of the reports?

"Maybe we had our guard down," Alfonsi conceded. But "the idea that they'd (the families) be told the wrong information
this is mind-boggling," Rose said.

While no questions were definitively answered Monday night, McBride said that wasn't the point of the panel. She welcomed the dialogue between journalists and the public.

"Maybe now I should have a little more hope that the public does care (about journalism)," McBride said.

Justin McLaughlin writes for the Times West Virginian in Fairmont, W.Va.

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