USA Today’s headline called it a “media misstep” over reporting that the West Virginia miners were alive when all but one was dead. But the January 5 story by Mark Memmott under the headline was more accurate, calling it a “collective failure” by the media. More than that, it was a major embarrassment and humiliation.
This story was important because Memmott quoted a number of media figures and analysts over what lessons, if any, should be learned. First, however, we must understand why this and similar stories were written. Have the media turned over a new leaf and now intend to subject their coverage to serious scrutiny?
In this case, the media were caught in the act of reporting something that wasn’t true. And everyone knew it! They were caught with their pants down when they ran those glaring headlines about the miners being alive. People who woke up to see it reported on the morning news programs that all but one were dead were picking up newspapers that said they were all alive.
Under these circumstances, it would have looked grossly irresponsible not to have engaged in some form of introspection into what went wrong.
One had to read to the end of Memmott’s story to learn that one of the major papers, the Washington Post, was unapologetic over getting the facts wrong. Post executive editor Len Downie was quoted as saying, in effect, that the paper reported what was true-at the time-and when the facts changed, the paper reported that too. That’s an interesting definition of truth. It just keeps changing as time goes by.
He said the original Post story, which reported that the miners “were found alive,” was “a reflection of what was being said at the time.” This is a rather cavalier attitude toward the notion of objective or absolute truth. The fact is that the miners were NOT found alive. It was reported that they were alive, but this is something different than actually being found alive.
As for USA Today, Memmott said editors at his paper relied on Associated Press wire service. So blame them.
Initially, I was prepared to give the media a pass on this one, on the grounds that they were reporting information that came from actual people, as opposed to anonymous sources or making it up. There is no question that some family members of the trapped miners were saying they were alive. But when you have editors like Downie basically excusing media misconduct, at a time when reporters did not cite sources or attribute the information to real people, that is an outrage.