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False Hope Leads the Way for Three Hours

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I tend to be a bit of a breaking news junkie. I don’t take my laptop to bed but the cell phone is on the nightstand and I check the news and my email before I get out of bed when I wake up in the middle of the night and in the morning. So when a story develops in real time, I often watch it as it grows.

This morning, the big story is how we — the blogosphere and the mainstream media — got it wrong. There is much fingerpointing and allegations of not “checking facts.” That portrayal is inaccurate.

Every reporter I saw checked the facts. There was no accurate information to find. On scene, for three hours, there was only one story. The miners were alive.

Family members, those with the least motivation to misreport the news, rushed the media waiting outside the mine and church, yelling “they’re alive.” Every reporter asked the same question — how do you know? Who told you? Eventually all the rumor tracing led back to the same source — a “mine foreman” who was at the command center and who had gotten the information from the team inside. I heard the mine foreman source for the first time at about 1 am ET last night during an otherwise horribly stilted interview. Over 12 hours later, that piece of information had not changed. It appears that a mine foreman, someone known to the families, was at the command center and did believe, based on what he heard, that the miners were alive. Few of the reports relied solely on the families’ cries.

The governor, one of the media’s more reliable sources, emerged from the church and announced that it was a miracle. It was only this morning that we learned that the governor had heard the news from the families. We also learned that the governor returned to the command center, learned the rumor was true, and changed into a suit to meet the miners.

For three hours, there was no other official or semi-official word. Not for lack of trying. There were repeated pictures of the empty press conference dais and speculation about why the press conference was delayed. Cameras remained trained on ambulances which sat unused. I saw one live report of a quickly-assembled helipad being disassembled.

The oddest part of the story was when a new rumor started — that the miners would be taken directly to the church rather than to hospitals. It seemed almost impossible that they could do that. Yet, the unreliability of that report did not cast doubt on the earlier report. After all, you had the mine foreman and the governor’s thumbs up.

Three hours later, one miner had emerged alive and gone to the hospital. A doctor involved in the first miner’s treatment was being interviewed on CNN when the story changed and, for the first time, anyone outside the mine and the command center learned the remaining miners were not alive.

Those were three hours in which newspapers had to be put to bed. Three hours in which TV, radio, and the internet had to report what was happening. The New York Times added some tempering language, noting that “families reported” that the miners had been found alive. Many have suggested that all the reports should have done so. Perhaps some of those reports might have said “a mine foreman reported” or “the governor reported.”

Would that really have solved the problem? Would the average reader have registered the appropriate level of skepticism?

Suppose the head of the mining company, aware of the same facts the foreman heard, had called a press conference and said the same thing — “I just talked to the rescue team and they have found all twelve alive.” Is that the point when the media could report it without the disclaimer?

The standard being pressed this morning would require the reporters to stand outside and demand to see the live bodies themselves before reporting the news. That may be possible. There may be times when the survivors have to go to the hospital or simply want their privacy and the media has no right to see them.

There are many larger issues that the media must report based on what they’ve been told by someone. Often the attribution is given — the Pope’s spokesman says that the Pope is ill. If that were incorrect, the attribution is unlikely to save the media from the anger of the reader who later learns it is untrue. Even more frequent in which we expect the media to question the speaker — the spokesman for Pope John Paul II often reported he was well when observation suggested otherwise.

We rely heavily on a reporter’s judgment of what is credible. For three hours, the story of 12 surviving miners was credible. We should not be surprised that it was reported that way.

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