Press Critic: 'We All Get Brushed With the Same Brush'

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It may be a cheap shot to attack reporters and editors who were caught on deadline yesterday morning with the flat-wrong information that 12 miners had been found alive 41 hours after a coal mine explosion in Sago, W.Va., trapped them underground. Readers may even forgive them; it’s a media-savvy world in which people know how deadlines work.

But does any of that matter?

“Anything that is a knock against the credibility of media, any news media, is a problem for all media," said Al Tompkins, who teaches writings and ethics at The Poynter Institute. “We all get brushed with the same brush, whether you like it or not."

'Worth an explanation'
“Even if the public said, ‘I understand how this happened and I don’t really blame the journalists for getting it wrong,’ it doesn’t really explain why some newspapers and TV stations as well overplayed what they knew without attribution,” he said. “That is worth an explanation.”

There are certainly tens of thousands of newspaper editions still in readers’ hands that bear the terribly wrong news. As was clear hours after families began rejoicing, the reports of 12 live miners were wrong. Only one miner of 13 survived; 12 were found dead.

Certain newspapers took costly action to do the story what justice they could. When the managing editor of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette went to sleep, the presses were rolling with the headline, “Miracle at Sago: 12 Miners Alive.” But around 3 a.m., the executive editor stopped the presses halfway into the print run. About 114,000 copies of the paper’s print run of 256,000 got the story right.

The New York tabloids didn’t stop the presses on early editions with wrong information, but were able to update the news in later editions. While The New York Post initially printed “ALIVE” on its front page (beneath a tease for Lindsay Lohan’s important “Confessions of a teen star”), a later edition said “CHAOS” and reported that 12 miners were dead.

Three headlines, five editions
The New York Daily News used three different headlines as it progressed through five editions: “Town of Lost Hope,” “Alive -- Miracle in West Virginia” and, finally, “Shock -- Heartbreak in West Virginia.”

The early edition of The New York Times reported only that one miner’s body had been found, but its two subsequent late editions reported “12 Miners Are Found Alive, Family Members Say.”

“By the time our presses stopped running at 2:47 a.m., our coverage of the mining disaster relied on attributed sources, including a named official from the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety and victims’ family members,” said Toby Usnik, executive director for public relations, The New York Times Co. “We updated our coverage online at approximately 3:25 a.m. once contrary reports were confirmed. At that time, all printed copies of today’s Times were circulating.”

Collision of deadlines
That attribution may be the saving grace for The Times and other papers caught up in the collision of deadlines and breaking news.

The Boston Globe, which threw away copies with the outdated good-news report, eventually used the inelegant headline “12 Miners Reportedly Found Alive.”

“It may not be the most poetic thing and it probably isn’t going to jump off the newsstands,” Mr. Tompkins said of The Globe headline. But it was those papers and other news outlets, he said, that performed best in this debacle of disaster reporting.

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