Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Press and The Truth At Sago

I need to write a bit about the "miscommunication" problem at the Sago mine. Clearly everyone -- the company, the press or government officials -- made serious mistakes. And while it's hard to untangle that web of mistakes, it's important to understand the, in the spirit of learning lessons for the inevitable next time.

The coverage of the mine disaster coverage is quite interesting. As might be imagined, blame gets apportioned to all parties. The Columbia Journalism Review is amazed that so many newspapers -- including the "venerable" Washington Post and New York Times could have reported the bad "good news" without any mention of sources beyond emotional family members. Was it fatigue, the strong wish for good news?
Certainly, the decision not to immediately correct the rumors helped the story leap to the front pages. But what is equally obvious is that reporters at the scene did not do enough to verify the truth of what they were being told by happy family members. They then produced articles, like the Post's and USA Today's, that almost unbelievably failed to offer any sources.
Washington Post blogger Howard Kurtz, noting that the company and the governor screwed up, also puts primary blame on his journalistic brethren "for not instinctively understanding that early, fragmentary information in times of crisis is often wrong."

Some in the press, including the Associated Press absolved themselves of blame:
“AP was reporting accurately the information that we were provided by credible sources — family members and the governor,” Mike Silverman, the news agency’s managing editor said in the story. “Clearly, as time passed and there was no firsthand evidence the miners were alive, the best information would have come from mine company officials, but they chose not to talk.”
One clue to the problem may be in observing what was different about this disaster from previous mine disasters:
During the entrapment of nine miners in the Quecreek mine flood in July 2002 in Pennsylvania, state mine safety experts and U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials took part in regular media briefings.

At the Sago Mine, Gov. Joe Manchin frequently briefed reporters. MSHA had at least two public affairs officials at the mine site, but never briefed the press. Top MSHA officials, as well as the agency’s press officers, have generally not returned phone calls and have declined to answer most questions about the accident, the rescue operation and their investigation plans.

Throughout the more than 40-hour incident, company officials from mine owner International Coal Group handled most of the task of informing the public through the media.
So what was the problem here?

Former MSHA Public Affairs Official and Mine Safety Watch blogger Kathy Snyder, who has been the press officer at mine disasters notes that in the past MSHA would handle the communication, effort -- including rumor control -- when the company didn't want to handle it or was unable to handle it. And they sent people who had enough experience to avoid many of the problems that were experienced the other night. But things change, especially in this administration:
We knew that when accurate information is lacking, rumors will run wild. So rumor control was part of what we had to do.

We also knew that communicating critical news by walkie-talkies or cell phones can lead to unintended interceptions and mistakes. The rescuers in the Virginia emergency understood this and discussed new findings only by land-line or in person until the families knew. In this way, we made sure that the miners' families always got announcements first -- and accurately.


In Upshur County, as soon as it was known that the miners' families were reacting to a false rumor, someone should have stepped in at once to give them the truth. If no one else was willing, MSHA should have done it.

Public information on mine safety is part of the federal mine agency's job -- a part it has less and less enthusiastically embraced under the Bush administration.

For instance, MSHA has cut back on what it gives out under the Freedom of Information Act, dumbed-down news releases, and pushed career professionals out of public roles.
Ellen Smith of Mine Safety Report (via Kevin Drum) fills in a few more details about how MSHA's role has changed:
In this case, MSHA sent down Dirk Fillpot from Labor Dept. headquarters. Although Fillpot is not to blame for the horrific miscommunication that led families to believe for three hours that their loved-ones were alive, he has absolutely no experience in dealing with mine disasters, unlike two highly qualified and seasoned press people — Rodney Brown and Amy Louviere — who sat back at MSHA headquarters in Arlington twiddling their thumbs. And who was in charge at headquarters? Suzy Bohnert — another person with absolutely no experience in dealing with mine disasters and the confusion that the situation brings, and who in fact, has given out incorrect information in the past due to her lack of knowledge of MSHA policies and past practices.

I cannot imagine that Amy or Rodney would have let this incorrect information go unanswered for so long. In the past, MSHA has stepped up to the plate when the company failed in communications during past disasters. It's time for the agency to recognize its role in this media and family nightmare.
So what's the right answer? I'd have to go with Door Number 3: Blame MSHA and the Bush administration cutbacks.

When all else fails, the responsibility for communication should fall to the party that has the most knowledge and experience, and the least emotional stake in a "good" outcome. Company officials may be too emotionally involved and too inexperienced in handling disasters. Whereas MSHA officials may have handled many similar situations, most company executives will (hopefully) only experience one in their entire careers, at most.

A United Mineworkers official, Dennis O'Dell, who was at the site helping to coordinate the rescue effort, discovered the truth about the dead miners at the same time the company did. His experience illustrates the problem when the communication effort is left to the company:

O'Dell said he assumed the information would be passed on to the families shortly after midnight.

He said he first found out false rumors were still circulating about 1 a.m. when he called his wife in Virginia to tell her the miners were dead.

She told him national news sources still were reporting all of them were alive.

O'Dell said he immediately contacted on-site officials with both the state of West Virginia and with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to see who should correct the mistake.

He again was told the matter was being left up to the coal company.

"Morally, I felt like I or someone should, but legally the company has to do that," O'Dell said. "We can't do that. Who was I to the family members? They've been communicating with the company all night, and if I went down there as someone they'd never seen before and told them this, what would they think? What would they do?

"It was sickening," O'Dell said. "Your stomach was in knots. It was just nauseating."

Add to that the fact that the press these days seems to be more interested in pushing news out as quickly as possible and worrying about accuracy later, you have the makings for a mess. It may be coincidence, but this was the first big mine disaster where MSHA did not have the capability on the ground to handle potential communications problems.

And one thing on which I think everyone can agree: it didn't go very well.