A Lesson Left Unlearned

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"Attribution, attribution, attribution.” That was the answer CNN senior Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre offered last week to the question of how the media could avoid making the mistakes it made with the West Virginia mine tragedy.

“Hope and Heartbreak” is what CNN called its special on the disaster, and that, too, spoke to the role of the media in spreading the wonderful news that 12 of the 13 miners had been saved, only to find that the story was dreadfully wrong.

It’s hard to heap blame on news outlets for reporting that families of the trapped miners were rejoicing at the news. That was the news everyone wanted to hear. That was the news mine employees relayed to the families by cellphone. That was the news being spread with every high-five amid tears of joy. It was what mine executives believed the search team had said. But the story was wrong.

As long as that information was attributed to its sources, all seemingly credible, the media were doing their job. But news outlets should have been more careful until an official confirmation came from the company or other official sources, to warn viewers—and the miners’ families—that the story wasn’t really over.

It is not clear that everyone followed that basic tenet of journalism: Trust but verify, and, in any case, attribute. The crucial second source cannot be an echo. Even if deadlines loom and online competitors trumpet the news of a “miracle” in the coal mine, journalists need to be more careful. It is easier said than done in the era of instant, “always on” news.

Which leads us to the larger questions: To what extent were the reporting mistakes an example of what Ted Koppel has often decried as the desperate race to be first? How much was it a case of emotion trumping judgment?

Or was this mistake an unavoidable perfect storm of desperately hoped-for news developing late at night, coupled with widespread miscommunication from those who ought to know better?

Whatever the combination of causes, the mistake should be a spur to news operations across the country to examine the logistics of coverage and the safeguards against going too quickly with any news. News organizations can use this tragedy as a lesson for the future. But we seem to remember saying that in 2000, when Gore defeated Bush—and then didn’t.

In 1890, the City News Bureau (which closed on Jan. 1) began training young journalists in Chicago. Its famous maxim, repeated like a mantra by its reporting staff, is one every journalist covering news events, big or small, should remember for the future: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

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