Sago: The Anatomy of Reporting Gone Wrong
National news organizations flooded the small mining community of Sago, W. Va., to cover the trapped miners. But mistaken information from seemingly authoritative sources allowed good news to outrace the truth.
It started at about 11:50 p.m. on Tuesday night. CNN's Anderson Cooper had a rare positive story to tell.
"That is incredible news," Cooper told viewers. "Again, if this turns out to be true... we have not been able to independently confirm this... but the family members have been told... that the 12 miners are alive."
Just 15 minutes later, Cooper dropped the attributions and reported it as fact.
"There is elation at this moment," Cooper said. "The news just coming a short time ago that the 12 miners are alive."
Similarly, NPR reported it this way at 2 a.m. on Wednesday:
Shay Stevens: "Dan Heyman of West Virginia Public Broadcasting says the news came as mining officials and the state's governor cautioned against high hopes."
Heyman: "I spoke to a number of family members who were just pretty much ecstatic."
Newspapers put to bed late Tuesday night carried jubilant headlines across the nation.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution trumpeted "Miracle in Mine" while The Hartford Courant read: "They're Alive." USA Today put it this way: "'Alive' Miners Beat Odds."
But they hadn't. Officials of the International Coal Group said later Wednesday they knew miners had died a bit past 1:30 a.m., but it's not clear how quickly that was relayed to the families.
Greg Peppers, executive producer of NPR's hourly newscasts, says NPR relied upon confirmation from the Associated Press and Reuters, then got Heyman's report from the scene. The story was corrected by 3 a.m.
The wire services attributed the rescue to West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, among other sources. But here's how Manchin told NBC News he learned of the rescue.
"I heard it from the families when I came into the main church park," Manchin said. "And I said 'What had happened?' And they said they were found. I said 'Oh, my goodness.'"
But Manchin added: "We had no confirmation."
Manchin said when he went to the command center early Wednesday morning, officials there were euphoric. At 12:18 a.m., according to the company, a radio report from teams inside the mine indicated rescuers and the miners were preparing to emerge. It was that report that led to the false hopes.
At the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, an upbeat headline for an Associated Press article about the rescue initially dominated the front page Wednesday.
"We're always criticized for not reporting positive news," Editor and Publisher John Temple said. "This is 'Plane Crashes and Everybody Lives.' We consider that news."
But the change in the news later stopped the presses. Temple's paper discarded 10,000 copies, provided a grim headline and substituted a new story.
"We're not going to print a front page and important information that we know to be wrong," Temple said.
Temple says three-quarters of his readers got the correct version of the news. And he says the AP handled the story responsibly -- given the information it had. Other newspapers were also able to update the news between editions.
According to TVNewser.com, CNN was the first cable channel to correct the story... at about 2:45 a.m.
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