Sago media speaks out

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Journalists were in the hot seat about two months ago, when national headlines made a coal mining tragedy here in West Virginia much worse. Everyone knows that. But what many people may not know is that some of those journalists came to Morgantown six weeks after the Sago Mine disaster, on February 13, to discuss what went wrong. You can hear the entire two-hour panel discussion at the Podcast on this site. It’s well worth listening to, and you may even learn some things you didn’t know.

Like I did, when one panel member spoke about how he was deeply affected by the media mess, as he told the audience how relatives and friends of the Sago miners covered their heads with clothing, to keep from being photographed; kicked over news cameras; and even made obscene gestures to the media.

I think I can understand their reaction. I was swimming the night of January 3, when someone told me the miners were alive. My initial response was disbelief. However, eager and hopeful, I went home and turned on the tube. The reports were everywhere, and they all sounded the same: 12 miners had been found alive.

Three hours later, what had begun as a coal mining disaster had changed into something else: a media fiasco of the worst possible kind, the kind that no editor wants to have happen on his or her watch. Some questions, such as how the wrong information got out to begin with, will never be answered. The fact that such a tragedy could be compounded by erroneous news reports that then spread like wildfire, shows what a delicate balancing act is performed by today’s media. And we don’t always get it right. Unfortunately.

The panel discussion, hosted by West Virginia University’s Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism, and part of this year’s Festival of Ideas, looked at the media’s role at Sago and what went wrong. It featured six people who worked on stories that came out of Sago. This includes Mike Solmsen, a producer, and Sharyn Alfonsi, a correspondent, with CBS News; Derek Rose, a general assignment reporter for New York Daily News; Randi Kaye, an anchor and correspondent for CNN; Scott Finn, the statehouse reporter for The Charleston Gazette and; Mark Memmott, who covers media issues at USAToday.

While the entire evening was captivating, for me, reporter Scott Finn’s comments stood out at night’s end. Because January 2 was a holiday, he was the only person in the newsroom when word of the explosion was received. As he drove from Charleston to Buckhannon, Scott said his thoughts went to what he would find when he arrived, and how he could do justice to a story of this kind:

“I was really concerned about getting it right because I know – and I’ve learned in the last month – just how much West Virginians know about coal mining. How many people have coal mining in their history, in their families. And if people have been around for three or four decades, they’ve been through mine disasters before. And so my main concern was trying to get the story right. To understand enough about what was going on to convey it to an audience that knows about coal mining and also, conceivably knows the miners involved.”

Much as we may try, we don’t always get it right. The Sago story has been a huge lesson learned for all of us. It has taught us that a hallmark of good journalism is, and has to be, accuracy. When the Challenger disaster occurred, an investigation into NASA’s space program later found that groupthink was a contributing cause. Groupthink occurs when several people don’t think independently, but instead allow themselves to be carried along on a wave, with the majority. All too often, that majority turns out to be wrong – leaving the people riding the wave with nothing to do but crash.

I still can’t help but believe – even after listening to the panel members who spoke here – that in the end, groupthink is what caused the wrong headlines, as many journalists lost their ability to be objective.

Maybe the media, along with everyone else, just wanted a miracle a little too much.

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My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!


Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”