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January 4, 2006

This Just In: Corporate Media Standards Scrape Bottom

The mainstream media has featured a slew of analysis trying to evaluate how outlets got the story of miners surviving the Sago Mine explosion so wrong. Starting with a piece by Greg Mitchell that appeared on the Editor & Publisher website, there has been no shortage of media-watchers willing to look at what amounted to carelessness. It's pretty clear that, to some degree or another, the breaking-news-addicted corporate media could have been more skeptical of reports that 12 of 13 miners had survived the 40-plus-hour ordeal. The criticism is valid, but it is hardly the most important.

What about the many other ways the corporate media mishandled this story?

Keep Your Eye on the Shiny Object

First of all, why was the incredible story of how horribly this particular mine was managed, in terms of safety, handled as a mere sidebar for two days while the media focused on every unconfirmed, irrelevant detail of the incident at hand? Ample information was readily available even before it became clear that an incident had taken place at the Sago Mine. While media outlets scrambled for shaky breaking news, documents citing the mine's safety record in detail went largely unreported.

And why could I find nowhere, for over 48 hours, except in our own story by Brendan Coyne posted Tuesday morning, anyone painting the bigger picture of mine safety, poor regulation enforcement, the decaying of safety standards under the current administration, cozying up between MSHA and the mine owners, etc.?

(This angle, expanded today, was second nature to TNS -- especially to Brendan -- since we regularly report on workplace-safety issues. It's our policy not to wait for tragedies to highlight topics that are important to working people. See the end of this blog post for some archived stories you might wish to review.)

Trust The Company

And what was with the eerie, Orwellian situation with "the Company" standing as the main, if not the sole, source of first-hand information coming out of the rescue effort? It even became clear that the governor's office was dependent on the International Coal Group for its information. How is it that reporters, editors and producers came to the decision that the ICG's president -- who at worst may be criminally implicated in the tragedy, but who at least has a vested interest in spinning information in favor of his company -- should be validated as a spokesperson for the emergency response?

Maybe you're thinking journalists had no power to affect who was providing information. But what really happened is the company set up a birdfeeder of information, which it filled every several hours, and in between feedings the corporate reporters milled around on the lawn harassing family members, trying to extract any excruciating morsel of information they could.

Failure to Push Other Agencies

Meanwhile, the Mine Safety & Health Administration, the West Virginia government, and who-knows-how-many other agencies were allowed to remain in the shadows, as if they had no role in the matter.

Last night on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, reporter Tom Foreman boasted of a "reporters' revolution" he said took place during a telephone press conference with the MSHA. "One-after-another," he bragged, journalists "sort of lit into" the officials and refused to allow them to keep responses "on background" and "not-for-attribution." Foreman told Cooper that reporters would not accept stonewalling in the post-Katrina era. "People are saying, 'It's not enough to say "trust us," you've got to show us we can trust you'," he assured viewers.

But what took the media so long to band together and insist on answers and accountability? If MSHA thought reporters were paying attention two days earlier -- rather than distraught families being the main event -- maybe it would have taken a more active role. Instead it left an even more biased source to monopolize the flow of information.

Invasion of Privacy

CNN was exemplary in its willingness to shove a camera -- flood light and all -- right into the faces of worried, and later grieving, family members and shout questions at them, as if their private feelings or thoughts are even remotely our business. On last night's show, Cooper tooted his own horn, saying that family members had told him they were glad the media was there. Cooper informed his audience that was because otherwise, the families would have had to deal with their emotions all alone.

A different, less egotistical interpretation might conclude that families were glad the media was there to document the behavior of the mining company and regulatory officials who failed them so tragically. Just imagine how much more grateful for journalists' presence those families might be had reporters spent half as much time harassing officials as they spent prying accounts of "emotions" and "hopes" out of the victims' loved ones.

Why Wait for Tragedy?

Just to show that, in case they cared, our corporate counterparts certainly could have focused a little more on workplace safety issues before tragedy struck, here's a small sample of what we've managed to do in the past on that subject using our modest, reader-supplied budget.

Bush Nominees for Labor Safety Slots Have Questionable Records

Budget, Alliance Uncertainties Threaten Grassroots Work Safety Efforts

OSHA Under Assault in House

Watchdogs Denounce Federal Cuts to Gov’t Oversight Programs

Immigrant Worker Deaths on the Rise

Florida Workplaces Deemed Most Dangerous in Country

Labor Federation Cuts Jobs, Shifts Priorities, Raises Hopes, Concerns

Unaddressed Health Hazards Persist as New Orleans Slowly Rebuilds


diverlee: This Just In: Corporate Media Standards Scrape Bottom

Bravo. You hit the nail on the head.

The real "news" should have been in the background history of safety violations and what should or could be done to avert future tragedies.

I believe the failure was not as much in the reporting of the story, but the consuming of the story. We news consumers need to take responsibility for our own part in the chain of command, or demand.

If a majority of readers didn't support such shoddy and vulgar sensationalism with mindless subscriptions or advertising, it simply wouldn't work as a successful business model.

Another failure may be ours in openingly discussing such valid considerations but buried deeply here in the blogs, which may be inherently limited to those of us with the same concerns and subscriptions.

Alternative media like TheNewStandard may give us, at least those of us willing to be enlightened rather than entertained or enthralled, a chance to become better news consumers by edification.

A better approach may be to set the example by producing an in-depth article with your base readers without the usual mass media trappings. That way we could share the story with our family and friends challenged by profit-based-media. In turn bringing more support for the need of an independent media.

Keep up the great work. Some of us desire it; the rest need it.


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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.