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SU journalism professor: W. Va. mine disaster coverage leaves lessons to be learned
SU journalism professor: W. Va. mine disaster coverage leaves lessons to be learnedJanuary 05, 2006Jaime Winne Alvarez firstname.lastname@example.org
Charlotte Grimes, Knight Chair in Political Reporting and an expert on journalism and ethics in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, says for family members of the 12 miners who lost their lives in the West Virginia mine collapse, there can be no consolation for the miscommunication and misreporting that swirled late last night and was finally confirmed earlier today surrounding the fate of their loved ones. She believes there are lessons to be learned surrounding news coverage of horrible disasters, particularly from this one. And all of those lessons are painful.
“A bitter reality is that we never know all the details or have all the facts in the first reports of any breaking news event. At any given moment the news is only the best information from the most reliable sources we can get right then. The story changes, by necessity, as reporters get more and better information. It’s the inherent conflict between journalism’s conflicting mandates: ‘Get it right and get it fast,'” she says.
Grimes says this conflict is aggravated in the 24-hour news cycle, when “get it fast” overwhelms “get it right” because of unending pressures of newscasts and web sites that are constantly updated and the public’s conditioning by the news cycle to expect instantaneous reporting – “tell us something new and tell us right this instant.” She believes journalists are caught in a vicious cycle and desperately–and sometimes wrongly–try to satisfy that voracious appetite.
“We created the beast and have to either feed it or get eaten alive by it. The mine disaster coverage is a classic ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ dilemma. From what we now know, and this too is an evolving story, reporters on the scene had little reason to doubt sources and no way to independently confirm information. They could only confirm that if they were in the mine with the rescuers, and I haven’t heard that any reporters were allowed to be there,” she says.
For newspapers, disaster coverage is a special dilemma. “Newspapers, quite simply, have to go to print at a particular time, at a particular point in the story’s evolution. The newspaper front page is a moment frozen in time: Here is the story as it stands now. And when that story changes, as most do, that frozen moment becomes a ‘mistake’ — and often a terrible embarrassment to the newspaper or added pain for bereft and traumatized people,” she says.