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Journalistic lessons learned from WVA mines

It was interesting to see how the press generally handled the West Virginia mine story yesterday.

For those of you who did not pay attention to this story, Slate.com's Today's Papers has this synopsis:

The miners were found behind a makeshift barricade that they used to try to escape the carbon monoxide that filled the mine after the explosion. The company knew that the initial report from rescuers—at about 11:45pm EST—was sketchy and said it told people in the command center the report shouldn't be shared until it was confirmed, but word leaked out anyway. At about 12:30am, the command center heard from rescuers that most of the miners were dead, but initially they were in disbelief over that report and sent medical teams into the mine to double-check.

The correct info wasn't passed on for another two hours, when the president of the company went to deliver the news to those waiting at a nearby church; family members chased him out.
The Post's frontpage piece on the miners is a kind of tick-tock, heavy on purple prose. "The storm kicked up sometime before dawn Monday, sweeping across the scabbed mountains," it begins. Eventually—eventually—the piece digs into the details of the miscommunications. What it doesn't mention—and what doesn't seem to be mentioned elsewhere in the WP—is the part played by the press. "The miners had apparently done what they had been taught to do: barricaded themselves in a pocket with breathable air and awaited rescue," said yesterday's Post.

Speaking of which, a mea culpa: The papers' usual "final" editions carried the false reports. But contrary to what TP wrote, both the LAT and USAT caught word of the deaths. They had what amounted to over-time editions. The LAT actually threw out roughly 200,000 copies of the paper and restarted the printers. USAT, meanwhile, still apologizes to its readers. The Post's editor doesn't see it as correction-worthy, telling USAT, "I don't regard it as our error, but as an error by the people in charge of the rescue."

It is this last graph that is interesting. The online journalism site, Poynter, has this piece on this subject. And the NYT also has a story on how the press handled the story. The reality is that all of us are less able to deal with these kinds of rapidly changingstories in print and leave that to the Web, where we can deal with rapidly changing stories.

Therefore, it was interesting to see how the majors dealt with it in their e-mail newsletters. The NYT runs this in its e-mail newsletter this morning:

Today's Headlines for Wednesday, Jan. 4 included an article, "12 Miners Found Alive 41 Hours After Explosion," about the mining accident in West Virginia. That article relied on attributed sources, including a named official from the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, and victims' family members. Later information determined that 11 miners were dead and one survived.

Since this e-mail is compiled at 2 a.m. Eastern time, it did not include this new information, which broke about 3 a.m.

By contrast, the LAT actually put out two e-mail newsletters yesterday -- the first about the survivors and the second tragically updating that story.

The mining story is not an FCW story, of course, but we do often confront these kinds of issues. And e-mail newsletters are concerning. The e-mail newsletter that lands in your in-box in the morning is put together before we head out for the day and things simply can change between those two times. I probably would have followed the LAT model, but there is no way to un-ring the bell.

And the hidden secret is that most of you get to our Web site -- and I assume the same is true for other organizations -- from the e-mail newsletters. We spend all sorts of time on our home page, but what really matters is that e-mail newsletter.

Posted by Christopher Dorobek on Jan 05, 2006 at 12:15 PM


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