How the Press Got the Sago Story Wrong

Media outlets relied on unconfirmed rumor in reporting a happy ending to what turned out to be a tragedy. Is printing guesswork standard operating procedure at our nation's newspapers?

Maybe the reporters on the ground in West Virginia were just plain tired. Or maybe they themselves were swept up in the euphoria and wanted to believe. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain how the erroneous news of the survival and rescue of 12 of the 13 miners caught underneath the ground in Sago, West Virginia made it to the front pages of our nation’s papers this morning.

A close reading of the articles themselves tells the tale of how journalists bungled the story: In most, there are no sources at all for the information; in some, the sources are the rumors spread by frantic family members. Those sorts of sources are hardly a solid basis for headlines screaming, “They’re Alive!”

Take a look at how the venerable Washington Post began its story: “A dozen miners trapped 12,000 feet into a mountainside since early Monday were found alive Tuesday night just hours after rescuers found the body of a 13th man, who died in an explosion in an adjacent coal mine that was sealed off in early December.”

The article continues in full speculation mode, adding in the fourth paragraph that “the miners had apparently done what they had been taught to do: barricaded themselves in a pocket with breathable air and awaited rescue.”

All untrue — but written with stunning confidence. Nowhere in this Post piece is there any mention of sources. It doesn’t even refer to the one official, Joe Thornton, deputy secretary for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, who was widely quoted and whom the New York Times at least referred to in its lead: “Forty-one hours after an explosion trapped 13 men in a West Virginia coal mine here, family members and a state official said 12 of the miners had been found alive Tuesday night.”

In updated online versions today, both the Times and the Post tried to trace how the confusion arose. It sounded like a bad game of “telephone.” Apparently, according to Bennett K. Hatfield, chief executive officer of International Coal Group, the mine’s owner, the command center misunderstood a phone call from the rescuers in the mine shaft. Hatfield then admitted today at a news conference that he suppressed the news from a second phone call that made it clear that the first had been incorrect.

Certainly, the decision not to immediately correct the rumors helped the story leap to the front pages. But what is equally obvious is that reporters at the scene did not do enough to verify the truth of what they were being told by happy family members. They then produced articles, like the Post’s and USA Today’s, that almost unbelievably failed to offer any sources.

What we might have expected, and what could have perhaps mitigated some of the damage, is an explanation in papers’ online editions (and presumably tomorrow’s print versions) of the mistakes that reporters and editors made that led them to get the story so wrong. Where were journalists getting their information from? Why did they choose to believe it? How could they possibly write about miners being on their way to the hospital without confirming it? But, so far, no mirror has been held up.

And yet the most frightening aspect of this incident is what it suggests about how reporters normally function in a high-pressure crisis situation. Do they always rely on such poorly-sourced information?

Suppose, for a moment, the miners had actually been rescued. No one would have ever questioned the reporting. But journalists would have been correct by dint of pure luck — not because of solid information.

The old cliché says that it’s better to be lucky than good. In this case, the press was neither.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.