Media mined tragedy

By now our television, radio and print media have thoroughly covered last week’s heartbreaking saga of 13 coal miners in central West Virginia. Every national news outlet has sifted, searched and prodded for answers to the countless questions surrounding the mysterious mine explosion and subsequent deaths of 12 trapped miners.

But for the burdened community still recovering from this ordeal, the salt in their fresh wounds last Tuesday night was the appalling miscommunication that led loved ones to believe their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons were actually alive after more than 38 hours of breathing limited oxygen and poisonous air.

While blame and responsibility is still being assessed to the mining company officials, desperate townsfolk and exhausted rescue crews, I for one found myself most outraged by the reporters and journalists who scrambled to provide the world complete coverage of the tragedy as it unfolded. Though perhaps my ire should be equally distributed to every American (myself included) willingly glued to the endless footage of reporters interviewing locals who “didn’t know any of the guys personally” but heard the explosion from the comfort of their nearby homes.

“As it unfolds.” It’s a phrase we’ve become very familiar with in our culture of 24/7 news channels, constant online updates and “up-to-the-minute special reports.” It’s no longer a novelty or wonder for a student in Pakistan to instantaneously converse with his professor in Duluth through a live video feed or messaging of the “Instant” or “text” variety. We are slowly growing accustomed to our own information age where the demand for immediate communication is less a luxury than a right.

And although advances in technology have allowed us to connect to our outside world in a capacity and at a rate never before possible, it has also fostered a cultural impatience and a national attention span of minuscule proportions. Danger lies in our inability to sit through any film longer than two hours (unless it happens to be packed with heart-stopping action sequences between a 25-foot gorilla, extinct giant lizards and Depression-era fighter planes). It’s there in the dying art of conversation due to charmless cell phone exchanges and emoti-con dialogue over terse e-mails. And it’s certainly evident in the thousands of newspapers that were forced to print sorrowful retractions after it was finally discovered that “12 miners found alive” was a horribly unfounded and unverified headline.

What transpired in the days following the fatal mining accident are the terrible consequences of a country that expects its personal tragedies broadcast over the airwaves and a national media more than happy to do so.

Certainly the journalists camped out in the small West Virginia mining town last week can point to the Sago mining officials and state politicians that verified the rumor being joyously shouted from the local Baptist church as true the evening of Jan. 3. After all, if we can’t trust the sources in command of the situation, who can we trust? But while I don’t fault these reporters for being swept up in the joyful hope of a miracle any more than I do the miners’ family and friends, I do blame them and our entire gossip-driven culture for needing to document every ambulance siren, every uninformed local’s “feelings” on the situation and every potential nugget of truth, however unsubstantiated, to the rest of the world.

We needn’t reminisce about the days when Walter Kronkite or Edward R. Murrow gave us our single daily dose of news, reliability coursing through the steady timbre of their delivery, neatly packaged and presented from behind a desk. It’s good that we have a wide variety of news outlets and that the report you hear from Matt Lauer in the morning may be very different from the one given by Anderson Cooper that evening as stories develop and evolve.

What we could use more of these days, however, is Kronkite or Murrow’s accountability and credibility. The fact that there are hundreds of educated and passionate Internet “bloggers” out there every day challenging established journalists by digging up hidden truths and secret cover-ups otherwise unseen can only improve the field of journalism. However, that improvement is stalemated by the just as many, if not more, equally virulent “bloggers” who are not burdened by journalistic integrity or objectivity and instead use the freedom and anonymity of the Internet recklessly by printing anything so long as it serves their political, religious or personal agenda.

Similarly, our country benefits by “newshounds” that seek to make the indiscretions and illegal dealings of our elected officials’ and mega-corporations transparent to the nation. However, it is in no way bettered by supermarket tabloids that do the same for our film, television, music and sports stars. Those who say the problem is simply a matter of supply and demand are not wrong, but it is our country’s rubbernecking demand and the media’s willingness to supply that has allowed us to emotionally separate ourselves from tragedies like last week’s in West Virginia.

No one would accuse the many readers and viewers who avidly watched the events unfold of being insensitive or unsympathetic to the victims’ families simply by their tuning in. In fact, I’m sure a significant outpouring of written condolences has flowed into the small Appalachian community by now, just as aid and assistance came in the form of dollars and donations after on-location reporters showed the world the reality of hurricane-stricken New Orleans last fall (a good example of how pressure journalism can ultimately serve a humane and vital purpose).

But in our salacious desire to know every tidbit of information as it becomes available, despite being hundreds of miles away and not personally connected to the events, we see nothing wrong with the throngs of news reporters and camera crews that inevitably descend on towns like Tallmansville, W.Va, forever changing its residents almost as much as the circumstances that drew them there.

By seeing nothing wrong with the image of a windbreaker-donned reporter trying to capture as much emotion as possible on film from a tear-streaked neighbor or relative, we’ve allowed ourselves to forget what it might be like to actually be that grandmother; that widow; that now fatherless child. We’ve traded empathy for mere sympathy and our assumed “right” to be informed discards those victims’ rights to private grief. It must be difficult to really begin a healing process when one is constantly being asked by a man with a microphone, “When do you think the healing process will begin?”

It’s possible that the news sources that incorrectly printed last week’s joyous headlines should not be blamed for the error. It’s possible that the media circus atmosphere in no way contributed to the confusion and desperation that led to such a tragic misunderstanding.

But one thing seems certain: if our news outlets and the public at large had been satisfied last Tuesday evening with a report that read “we have no solid information at this time,” the sad truth of what was found deep in that mine would have been a little easier to accept on Wednesday morning, and that devastated town might be permitted to grieve in peace.

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