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Forum at WVU examines media coverage of Sago Mine disaster

Six local and national journalists who covered the Sago Mine disaster gathered Monday night in Morgantown to discuss the event’s press coverage. They focused on the reports splashed across many morning papers around the country that 12 miners, instead of one, had made it out alive.

“What should we have done differently, that is what we are here to talk about tonight,” said the moderator Kelly McBride, an ethics teacher at the Poynter Institute, a school of journalism in Florida.

“There were real people involved in this story. Real people who didn’t deserve to become the epicenter of a news event,” she said to crowd of mostly journalism and public relations students. “Journalism is supposed to be a service to communities.”

The West Virginia University Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism panel came on the same day as miners’ families testified before House Democrats, and union leaders urged new safety measures in mines.

The key question came when a woman from audience asked if the panelists had personal accountability and took personal responsibility for what they report.

Derek Rose, a reporter with the New York Daily News, and Randi Kaye, an anchor and correspondent for CNN both said they and their editors were responsible for their content.

CNN goes through various avenues fact-checking information, but the network has to fill 24 hours, Kaye said. During Sago there was pressure coming in her ear from her producers to, “Find someone. Find someone ...Where are you Randi? Who you got? Who you got?”

“‘Don’t you take personal responsibility for what you report?’ That is really good question,” said Mark Memmott, a media issues reporter for USA Today. “Out there in the real world the story is that mines aren’t safe, and why did it take so long for rescuers to get there...,” he said, responding to criticism that the media had begun reporting on the reporting and not the deaths, safety issues, or legislation. “Just because we did this panel doesn’t mean we think the media blowing it is the big story.”

But he was quite critical of The Associated Press whose reports throughout the night went from cautious to more certain that the miners were alive. He also blasted the New York Times for how they used statements from Joe Thornton, the deputy secretary for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. The Times, which did not directly quote Thornton, said he had confirmed “rescued miners were being examined at the mine shortly before midnight and would soon be taken to nearby hospitals. Mr. Thornton said he did not know details of their medical condition.”

Most of the panelists, including Scott Finn, the first Charleston Gazette reporter on the scene, argued that the confusion would have lessened if there had been a point man from the state or local government or from the coal company. “We didn’t know who to go for the truth,” Finn said.

A lady who identified herself as a WVU student and the daughter of an MSHA official covering Sago, asked why MSHA should divert resources from the rescue operation to talk to reporters.

“The people like your father should do their job,” Finn replied. “In Washington there are people in MSHA who only do public relations.”

Mike Solmsen, a producer for CBS News added that in similar situations “They [someone from the company or government] usually assign someone to just deal with the press, to get information out there.”

Sharyn Alfonsi, a correspondent for CBS News, agreed.

“Worse than bad information is no information,” she said.


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