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Examining efforts to get it right

January 05, 2006|By TERRY HEADLEE

Like most newspapers across the country, The Morning Herald reshuffled its front page late Tuesday when an Associated Press bulletin alerted us that 12 miners survived the explosion in a coal mine near Tallmansville, W.Va.

A story about the Hagerstown Cinema 10 closing on Leitersburg Pike was quickly moved lower on our front page and the AP story was moved to the top with the banner headline: "12 W.Va. miners found alive."

As we all know by now, that wasn't the case.

Twelve of the 13 miners were dead - something that company officials knew 20 minutes after families and friends of the trapped miners received word that 12 of the miners were alive.

It was almost three hours before the rejoicing families learned the truth.

The coal company's delay in correcting the information was hard on the families, who were placed on an emotional roller coaster. Any embarrassment we, and other newspapers, have experienced because our front pages carried information that was horrifyingly incorrect cannot be compared to their sorrow.

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At the same time, you have a right to know how it happened.

The first hint that the miners were alive came shortly before midnight. Reporters at the scene spoke to jubilant family members and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin gave onlookers a thumbs-up from the steps of a church and said "Believe in miracles."

The story that 12 miners were found alive was sent out by The Associated Press, and newspapers on the East Coast began scrambling to change their front pages to include the good news.

The deadline for our last page is 12:35 a.m., giving editors just enough time to get the story into the paper before our press start at 1 a.m.

Miners' relatives said it wasn't until 2:44 a.m. that they were told all but one of the miners were dead. A company executive made an official announcement at 3:09 a.m.

By then, of course, most newspapers on the East Coast had finished printing and the newspapers were being delivered to homes and stores.

The incorrect report of 12 survivors was the lead story on many front pages.

Since we are one of only a handful of newspapers in the country that publishes both a morning and afternoon paper, we were able to run a corrected version of the story Wednesday afternoon in The Daily Mail.

From the media's perspective, one lesson to be learned from this is the need to be cautious about reporting stories without official confirmation from the source with the best knowledge of the information. In this case, that was the company, which didn't initially confirm the news to The Associated Press nor immediately correct it.

Still, to say something like this won't happen again is wishful thinking.

I think it is human nature to want to believe that miracles can occur and that lives can be saved when it appears that all hope is lost in a tragic event.

Couple that with a pressing deadline, and family members and a governor expressing joy and relief, and it's not hard to understand how news outlets, from television to print media, got it wrong.

Even when it's understandable, we don't like getting it wrong. And we will renew our efforts to get it right, day after day.

Terry Headlee is the executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached by phone at 301-733-5131, ext. 7594, or by e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com.

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