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Media circus turns us all into spies

“I just want to let everyone know, this man is spying on you.”

With those words, a woman at the Sago Baptist Church has forced me to think about my profession in a different way — Am I a spy, or worse, a voyeur, a Peeping Tom into another person’s living hell?

That’s not how we reporters like to think of ourselves, and mostly, I don’t think it’s fair. But I’ve seen enough covering last week’s mine disaster to help me understand why this woman viewed me this way.

I saw old women with sons trapped in the mine have to walk a half mile up a dirt road. Why? Because between them and the church that was their sanctuary, a dozen satellite trucks took the prime parking spots.

I saw family members forced to walk a gantlet of reporters (including me) asking for their opinions, hopes, facts, names, when all most of them wanted was peace.

And I heard about Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera, who rushed into the families’ only media-free sanctuary, the church, to stick microphones in their faces and share with them the news that their loved ones were still alive, when in fact, 12 of them were dead.

In national surveys, the public respects reporters less than most other professions, down with politicians, lawyers and used-car salesmen.

My colleagues often wonder, “Why do they hate us so much?”

This is why.

As individuals, I think we all wanted the same thing — to tell the trapped miners’ stories, to give them a proper tribute, and to let their families know the whole world was with them.

As a group, we were often rude, pushy and inconsiderate. Maybe there’s no other way. But that doesn’t make it right.

Before we get into that, let me explain the spy lady. I was working alone early Monday, a holiday for most of our employees, when a fellow reporter told me there was a mine explosion in Upshur County. I rushed up to the Sago Mine to see what was happening.

Already, Sago Baptist Church had become a headquarters for the miners’ families. I arrived there around 1 p.m. and found about 50 people and a few local reporters like me.

We all received a briefing at the church by a company official. I was impressed by the depth of the knowledge the family members and friends possessed about the mine. One large miner in the back asked a particularly good question about ventilation for the trapped miners. I made a mental note to grab him after the briefing.

At the end, the company official announced that in the future, the families and the media would be briefed separately. The families wanted to know what happened first, and wanted some privacy. I respected that and I think the other reporters there did, too.

On the way out, I passed the miner who asked the question. He was talking to someone else and I didn’t want to interrupt, so I waited nearby.

Suddenly, a tall, thin middle-aged woman appeared next to us. She raised her hands in the air as if to get everyone’s attention. Then she made her announcement: A spy was in their midst.

I mumbled some sort of explanation — I was just waiting to talk to this man, the one who asked the good question.

To be fair to her, she had a point. I was trying to overhear what the man was saying. I was trying to overhear what everyone was saying. I was trying to understand. I was gathering facts and anecdotes for my story.

In essence, I was spying, although I would argue I was spying for a good cause. In this case, my motivation wasn’t fame or fortune. I was trying to tell a good story, to help my readers understand. If they care, maybe they’ll get involved, maybe they will help, maybe they’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.

And I think that as individuals, each reporter there told himself or herself the same thing. But in a story like this, the community doesn’t see us as individuals. They see us as a horde, the proverbial media circus.

As this story spread, the media swarmed into little Sago from across the country and around the world, as far away as Norway.

They parked their satellite trucks in people’s front yards. At first I did the same, until guilt and the increasing crowds convinced me to park along the road. (My silver Ford Focus was prominently featured on CNN, I am told.)

In our desire to get the story, each of us began a desperate scramble to find relatives and friends of the miners. Anyone who walked through this media area, and almost everyone had to, could be expected to be asked a dozen times for an interview.

When someone consented to an interview, they could expect a swarm of other reporters to gather around. I was part of a crowd of a dozen reporters interviewing one miner’s son.

There were at least 100 reporters, photographers and videographers at Sago. There was no good way for each of us to get what we wanted — an exclusive piece of that person’s time.

The entire process of interviewing someone is like a seduction. I ask a family member for an interview. I use all the weapons at my disposal to do this. I am charming and polite. I express concern for them. I appeal to their sense of duty, their desire for justice or revenge.

Fame is a powerful draw for some interviewees. Producers for CNN had little trouble finding people to talk to Anderson Cooper — in fact, some literally ran to him with news.

At its best, the seduction produces a happy relationship. The reporter gets the story and the family member gets to express how he or she feels.

But when the person is unsophisticated or in a vulnerable situation, the seduction feels somehow wrong. I saw one producer take the arm of a miner’s relative and guide her toward the cameras. She looked nervous to me and had just spilled coffee over her shirt.

There’s a reason we use certain words to describe the relationship. We ask for an interview. The subject gives one. We take notes. We take pictures.

Give and take. Except they’re doing all the giving, and we’re doing all the taking.

And sometimes, we ignore all the rules and go too far. Take Geraldo. Family members said he rushed into the church and started waving his arms and shouting “They’re alive, they’re alive” and inserting himself into a celebration, which was tragically wrong.

The media share some of the blame for erroneously reporting that the men were alive.

That was made clear by one convenience store manager I spoke with Wednesday. I said something about how horrible it all was.

“Yes, and some people made it much worse,” she said, giving me a withering look. I asked her what she meant. “The company, the governor, and you all made it worse.”

It’s no wonder that when the families found out the truth, they felt hostility toward everyone involved in telling them the lie. No one meant to hurt them, but they did.

There was even one moment when it looked like some people from the church might take their frustration out upon the media gathered below. State troopers warned media to leave the area for their own safety, although few did.

When the families finally drove out of the church, some covered their faces with jackets or covered the windows with towels to protect themselves from the cameras all around.

They covered themselves as if they were criminals. We forced them to do that.

I know many of my colleagues won’t want to read this. We are under enough attack from all sides without suffering from friendly fire.

Besides, there is much we did right. I’ve been proud of the Gazette’s and Daily Mail’s coverage of the event. Somehow, our reporters managed to tell these miners’ stories with dignity.

More importantly, we were tough and relentless in holding the company and state and federal officials responsible for their role in the tragedy. We continue to uncover their shortcomings and look for ways to prevent this from happening again.

Sometimes we’re despised for all the wrong reasons. We don’t report facts with the political slant some people prefer. We are too hard on people they like and too easy on people they hate.

I am told all the time, “You just wrote that story just to sell newspapers.” I promise, I have never, ever written a story with the idea in mind that hey, I bet this will sell more papers. Neither do my colleagues.

But sometimes we hurt people by our carelessness. In the heat of competition, in our desire to get the story, we sometimes push aside the needs of the people we cover.

I don’t know what the answer is here. In this decentralized system, such media circuses are probably inevitable. That doesn’t make them right.

By the way, faithful reader, if you now agree with that woman that I am indeed a spy, I have one question for you.

What does that make you?


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