Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Journamalism (Long Post)

I was fortunate enough to catch the live coverage of the West Virginia mine incident late Tuesday/early Wednesday. Hadn't been paying much attention to the story beyond knowing that 13 miners were trapped after an explosion and rescue efforts were underway. The whole thing is certainly a tragedy. But the "journalism" I watched this morning sickened me.
As has become far too typical, the cable "news" networks were LIVE on the scene in Tallsman, West Virginia attempting to fill lots of time between official briefings. Denied access to the families of the miners (a wise decision) gathered to wait out the rescue efforts, the cable guys kept repeating the same tidbits of information they had been given, speculated on what it all meant (a dangerous thing to do when you don't really know anything), and talked to their hired experts.

What I didn't see was any real explanation of what was going on. Surely at some point someone could have explained how the mine was laid out, what the rescue workers had to do, or provided explanations of some of the terms being tossed about. For example, reference was made to the "curtains" the miners could close to help seal out dangerous gases. What are those curtains made of? What size are they? Where are they located? How are they closed? Is any of that relevant to the ultimate outcome? No. But those are the types of questions I kept thinking while waiting for the next official briefing. And something that could have helped fill all that air time.

At one point on CNN, Anderson Cooper interviewed a mother and her two middle-school aged children live. They weren't related to any of the miners, were just residents of Tallsman who wanted to "join in the celebration" of the announcement that 12 miners had been found alive. The daughter had a "deer in the headlights" look, possibly from being yanked out of sleeping, possibly due to cameras and microphones being shoved in her face. Still, Cooper decided to ask her several questions, including how she felt.

(Side note: I'm watching CNN and MSNBC where reporters keep asking people in Tallsman "How did you feel when...." It's always a cheap, lazy question. And it never need be asked.)

A while later, this same family came running out to Cooper to tell him only one miner survived, that the mining company had lied and the families were all royally ticked. Cooper just stood there and let the mother blather. He made no effort to clarify what this woman was saying, or to caution that nothing had been officially confirmed. He even allowed the woman to "release" the name of the one survivor. At least she thought it was his name. We later learned she was half right.

Flipping to MSNBC we heard someone on a cell phone saying similar things, although there were no children to ask "how did this make you feel?" That was left to Anderson Cooper.

A bit later, mine company officials confirmed that "miscommunication" had occurred, and noted there had never been an official confirmation that 12 miners were alive. Some will say that was just "spin" and perhaps it was. Still, no one had video of anyone officially stating there were multiple survivors. And the networks all admitted they learned of the "miracle" after cheers erupted in the church and the church bells started ringing. Why didn't they call for caution at this unconfirmed news? I can understand being caught up in the jubilation of the moment, but somewhere in the course of the nearly three hours between announcements it would be wise to point out that no official had confirmed this report? That the source of the report was, in fact, unknown?

CNN anchor Daryn Kagan just said ". . .lost their lives buried in the earth." NO! The miners were NOT "buried in the earth." There was no cave in. The mine is still open. No one was "buried."

I'm also amazed at the continued speculation based on an unofficial, unconfirmed report that the one live miner's breathing apparatus was still "working" given the reliance on an earlier unofficial, unconfirmed report that 12 miners were alive. What does "still working" mean? That there was still air in the apparatus? Or that the device was still functional, but its supply of air was exhausted? Why assume it is the former? Why not attempt to confirm that?

This is not a bright shining moment for the cable nets.