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Shoot The Messenger?

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To: The Mainstream News Media
From: A Former Reporter/Current News Junkie
Re: Getting a bad rap

The news media is under fire and, for a nice change, it’s not deserving of the criticism.

The charge: Getting the story of the miners wrong – claiming some survived, who actually perished.

Many newspapers reported this morning that 12 coal miners were alive when it turned out they were not.

The problem with the charge: It’s neither fair nor accurate.

The news stories in today’s newspapers quote not just one source or two but multiple ones, including the governor.

A news story is only as good as its sources and if the governor is giving out bad information how is the news media supposed to know better?

So yes the story was wrong but the fault was not that of the newspapers but those providing the bad information, as the Chicago Tribune explains in this article.

Several major newspapers stopped the presses to change the story but many others did not do so.

As Editor and Publisher reports, the coal company knew the reporters of survivors were wrong 20 minutes after the information was released but did not correct the bad data.

This is not to say the news media is perfect. Far from it.

I have complained about the Judith Millers
and Robert Novaks and Bob Woodwards and others who give the news media a bad name.

The latest big media figure to get in trouble is Baltimore Sun columnist Michael Olesker, who quit after allegedly copying material from other newspapers. He was a columnist for the Sun for 27 years.

But this mining allegation is just bogus. Blaming the news media for reporting the news as they knew it misses the point of the profession.

Reporters and editors did their job and are now getting in trouble for reporting the new. Editors at some newspapers tried to explain to readers what went wrong.

It will be interesting the next few days to see how much people will spin to try to blame the news media for the coal company’s failings. Media analysis of the situation is already going on at Poynter Online’s always excellent Internet site.

And you can expect to see hand-wringing about how newspapers and bloggers – which would include some writing here – were too quick to report the news which turned out to literally be too good to be true.

But that’s missing the point. The problem is not how rapidly the news was disseminated but that the news given out was wrong.

And that’s always bad news.

Your constant reader
Scott Butki
P.S. Don’t forget to see if you were one of those receiving Christmas presents from me to media figures.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Scott, good summary – more journalists should be forced to be embedded in war platoons – this will help give them an understanding of the ‘fog of war’ and information’s murkiness.

    Overall, I believe, the news-hunger in the post-modern world has made us all info-whores, and once you’re hooked, there’s no going back.

    In regards to copy-fraud in journalism,
    Journalism is the one solitary respectable profession which honors theft (when committed in the pecuniary interest of a journal,) & admires the thief….However, these same journals combat despicable crimes quite valiantly–when committed in other quarters. (Mark Twain)

  • Thanks, Aaman.


    I thnk that the press often misses fact checking, or even time to prove or disprove facts and let the story develop, in its rush to publish.

  • Scott Butki

    Generally I’d agree with that but in this case I do not think it applies.

    Everyone was singing the same tune at the time things went to press.

  • Scott, you might be interested in this story on the media’s response, where, interestingly, I was quoted.

  • Scott Butki

    A little background:

    A coroner can declare someone dead and that’s how it’s usually handled at accident scenes.

    In this case I think part of the problem is that the coroner – and the reporters – didn’t really know until after actually seeing the

    P.R. will often call someone as being in “critical condition” when they don’t
    want to acknowledge death. Cops do this too sometimes.

    This is where it gets tricky for reporters – sometimes the hospital
    either don’t want give out information (a major trend now with the
    HIPPA regulations) or don’t do so in a timely manner so the reporter
    has to choose between writing the latest they know or just saying,
    essentially, we know something (critical condition) but we don’t
    know anything definitive.

    If they say ‘ we don’t know” readers get mad. If you say “we think
    we know” you get in trouble if you are wrong or used or got bad info.

    The part that was driving us crazy when I left the paper was that
    under HIPPA – the latest federal privacy rules – hospitals felt they
    didn’t have to say (or argued that they can’t legally say) when a
    patient dies.

    So they would instead say “That person has been transferred to
    another facility.”
    Now we knew to watch for that and would then press on: as in moved
    to another hospital or as in moved to a mortuary? And they would not
    always answer.

    That drive us bonkers – how do you write, ok, the patient may be
    better, may be transferred somewhere for more or may be dead.

    Our solution was to then call all other hospitals and hope to find
    the missing patient. Not really practical or successful in the end.

    End of rant

  • Scott Butki

    Good pieces on the issue in USA Today (and you won’t find me linking there often)

    The paper also takes the classy route of including an explanation note to its readers.
    which seems to me to make a lot of sense in this case.

    I think I’ll do another column this weekend on those trying to lay the blame on this on the media’s doorstep

  • Scott Butki

    Meanwhile, the BBC has a good piece
    looking at the meaning of it all and quoting Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine.
    I haven’t listened to it yet but Jarvis has a link at his blog
    to Anderson Cooper getting the news
    about the tragic error.

  • Scott Butki

    Hmm, does this change anyone’s thinking?

    And an interesting observation within the latest Pressthink comments section from a reporter on the scene:E-mail from Felicity Barringer, New York Times:

    Jay: You are critical of journalists in West Virginia for not being rigorous about confirming the initial report that the miners were alive. I’m not sure you mentioned that the report originated with relay communications from inside the mine and was delivered to the jam-packed command center by squawk box. Have you reported on Mr. Hatfield’s description of how the erroneous report was widely disseminated by people in the command center who had heard it from rescuers within the mine?
    I was in West Virginia, where cell phone and Internet connections are haphazard, when you first posted, and I had a few other things to do. So tell me: Have you mentioned the company’s official explanation? It seems relevant, doesn’t it?

    I’m also curious about the hypothetical formulation that you recently put in the mouth of the CNN executive, which is written as if incorporating widely-known “facts.” You write: “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.”

    FYI: a stream of ambulances arrived at the mine as the reports of the “miracle” began circulating. They briefly blocked the road from the mine office to the Sago church, forcing at least one journalist to run between the two venues in search of information.

    Since you’ve had several days to find out whether ambulances were, in fact, dispatched, I’m sure you regret the inaccurate impression left by your column. And I’m confident you will correct it as visibly as you disseminated it, and explain where you got, and how you confirmed, the information that you give the color of fact. As I recall, standards for those reporting on the press are at least as high as those to which you hold other journalists.


    Felicity Barringer

  • Scott Butki

    For a fresh excellent look at what happened that nite read Derek Rose’s blog

  • Scott Butki

    FYI – There’s a good piece about how NPR handled – or mishandled – the story. It is here.