My rumored headline was merely a "miscommunication"

If I relied on this front page headline on today's Philadelphia Inquirer -- "Joy at mine: 12 are alive" -- I might think it was true.


But the story -- written by Tina Moore and Jeff Shields -- is nowhere to be found at the Inquirer's web site. Instead, it has been replaced with a new one by Jennifer Yates of the Associated Press headlined "12 confirmed dead in W.Va. mine blast."

CNN and Fox News are interviewing families and the confusion is being hotly debated.

This is all being chalked up to a "miscommunication."

(Hey don't ask me. I just want to know how it became a front page headline on the paper which was thrown in my driveway earlier.)

Naturally, the families are outraged, as they'd been celebrating the widely reported "fact" that the miners were alive.

As to the Inquirer and it's vanished story and headline, the new version mentions nothing about the old one. Instead, visitors to the web site are instructed that there had been a "rumor" that the miners were alive:

TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. - In a stunning and heartbreaking reversal, family members were told early Wednesday that 11 of the 12 trapped coal miners found were dead - three hours after they began celebrating news that they were alive.

The devastating new information shocked and angered family members, who had rejoiced with Gov. Joe Manchin hours earlier when a rumor began to spread that the miners were alive. Rescue crews found the first victim earlier Tuesday evening.

"About the confusion, I can't tell you of anything more heart-wrenching than I've ever gone through in my life. Nothing," Manchin said.

The sole survivor of the disaster, identified by mining officials as 27-year-old Randal McCloy, was hospitalized in critical condition early Wednesday, a doctor said. When he arrived, he was unconscious but moaning, the hospital said.


Does this mean the headline was just a rumor?

Here's the Inquirer's current version of how the "miscommunication" occurred:

Families gathered at the Sago Baptist Church began running out of the church and crying just before midnight, yelling "They're alive!" After two days of keeping vigil, they celebrated joyfully as church bells rang in jubilation.

As an ambulance drove away from the mine carrying what families believed was the first survivor, they applauded, not yet knowing there were no others.

The governor later indicated he was uncertain about the news at first. When word of survivors began circulating through the church, he hadn't heard it, he said.

"All of a sudden we heard the families in a euphoric state, and all the shouting and screaming and joyfulness, and I asked my detachments, I said, 'Do you know what's happening?' Because we were wired in and we didn't know," Manchin said.

Hatfield blamed the wrong information on a "miscommunication." The news spread after people overheard cell phone calls, he said. In reality, rescuers had only confirmed finding 12 miners and were checking their vital signs. At least two family members in the church said they received cell phone calls from a mine foreman.

It's easy to see how the grief-stricken families could misinterpret what they overheard about vital signs being checked.

But what about the news media? Did they just report rumors? And did company executives rely on misinterpreted reports of overheard cell phone conversations too? Apparently so.

"That information spread like wildfire, because it had come from the command center," he said.

Three hours later, Hatfield told the families that "there had been a lack of communication, that what we were told was wrong and that only one survived," said John Groves, whose brother Jerry Groves was one of the trapped miners.

"There was no apology. There was no nothing. It was immediately out the door," said Nick Helms, son of miner Terry Helms.

Chaos broke out in the church and a fight started. About a dozen state troopers and a SWAT team were positioned along the road near the church because police were concerned about violence. A Red Cross volunteer, Tamila Swiger, told CNN people were breaking down and suffering panic attacks.

A SWAT team?

Because of a media-fed feeding frenzy?

If the media can't even get a story like this right, no wonder there was so much trouble in New Orleans.

If I hadn't turned on the TV this morning in order to watch the rest of the "rescue," I might never have known the front page headline was just a rumor. Had I written a blog post expressing relief that the miners were safe, I'd have had to write another one admitting my mistake. And I would have left my previous post, relying on the rumor.

So how come the Inquirer doesn't do the same?

UPDATE: Googling the phrase "Joy at mine: 12 are alive", I found the actual story here. It appears to be archived as a file, so it really can't be said to have "disappeared," although it is not on the front page where it should be, accompanied by a correction. Nor is there anything to indicate the story is based on a rumor.

AFTERTHOUGHT: I've never seen a story disappear from the Inquirer web site's front page before, and I don't think it's right, because the front page web site is supposed to reflect what is on the front page of today's Inquirer.

If it's disconcerting for me to read the paper and find out a headline is just a rumor, I can only imagine the pain of the families.

UPDATE: Pajamas Media has an excellent collection of posts on this fiasco. I especially liked Swanky Conservative's take:

This is Katrina coverage redux. Emoting the news instead of reporting it, but pretending to be unbiased and honest.

What Iím reading in the press reports is that no source was given for the story that 12 survived.

Was there in fact an actual source? I'm expecting a full and complete coverup explanation at any time.

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds weighs in:

If bloggers had made these kinds of mistakes, Big-Media folks would be pointing them out as evidence that the blogosphere can't be trusted. But where were all those editors, filters, and fact-checkers?
That's similar to my complaint. We're all human and we all make mistakes. But bloggers were excoriated by the MSM for "spreading hysteria" simply because they speculated about what might have happened in the Hinrichs Oklahoma University bombing case, while here, an unconfirmed rumor was actually reported as fact. It looks like a double standard to me.

posted by Eric on 01.04.06 at 07:11 AM


Not quite Katrina, where major stories were simply made up: here, the MSM went with what seemed fairly hard news, fi hyped up from "checkin vital signs" to "survived."

But early info seems to be that it was known within twenty minutes of the vital-signs leak that there was only one survivor. This was not given to either the families or the MSM for about two and one-half hours. Why? One source has been paraphrased as saying the news was withheld so as not to subject the families to a "roller coaster of emotion" which may have been true for a few minutes, but not for hours.

John Anderson   ·  January 4, 2006 4:20 PM

In this case, it was a matter of bad timing. I can tell you, because I was involved in putting together a daily newspaper Tuesday night, too, and we got bit like everybody else. It was a perfect storm of deadline crunch. I am highly critical of the press, but this wasn't a Katrina case.

The great news story from the families was attributed correctly, and when it was checked out it proved false. In the gap of two hours or so that it took to rework the stories, most morning newspapers went to press. Schade. That's print journalism.

I also don't think the Inky was wrong to pull the wrong story from its site. You don't want to perpetuate a mistake. The goal of a newspaper archive is not to be a gallery of horrors to embarrass the publication, but to be an accurate reflection of reality. If they replated later editions with the "they're all dead" story, that was the same process at work. Just because you make a mistake once doesn't require you to keep making it.

Anyway, my take on it is here.

Callimachus   ·  January 4, 2006 6:49 PM

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