Three quick observations about the terrible news coming out of West Virginia this morning — news made all the more terrible because the media initially reported that 12 of the 13 miners had been found alive.
1. The North Pole edition of the Globe, dutifully delivered to Media Nation every day at about 5 a.m., runs with the headline “Body of one miner recovered; Hopes dwindling for others in W. Va.” Reportedly both the Globe and the Herald later put out editions touting the miracle-that-wasn’t. But if you go to the Globe and Herald Web sites right now, you’ll see that both papers are up to date, complete with front-page images on the latest developments. I’m sure this scenario was repeated across the country.
Since the dawn of the television age, print has been irrelevant in covering fast-breaking news. The role of newspapers today is to provide depth, context and analysis after the fact. The Internet serves to emphasis that change — only now, the newspapers’ own Web sites are proving to be more valuable than their print counterparts. Thus, today marks another small step in the move toward paperless news.
2. Though it will be some time before we can sort out why the media got it wrong, preliminary indications are that they thought they were reporting authoritative news when in fact they were passing along rumors. Gov. Joe Manchin, it turned out, didn’t have any inside information; rather, he was picking up on what the family members had somehow heard.
In that respect, this is reminiscent of what happened in New Orleans, where rumors of widespread rapes and murders were given credence by the mayor and the police chief. As the New Orleans Times-Picayune established, there was almost no truth to any of those stories. But it’s hard to blame the media for reporting what the city’s top two officials were telling them. And it’s hard to blame the media today for reporting that the miners had been rescued when the governor himself believed it was true.
3. Everyone is reporting the frightening safety record of the mine. But the larger story is that the Bush administration has been letting mining regulation slide backward. Rick Klein and Susan Milligan report the lowlights in today’s Globe. This is not a story the media should let drop.
Follow-up: Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher has wasted no time in calling the media’s performance “disturbing and disgraceful.”