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Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Papers Caught by False Mine-Rescue Story

"A top coal company official expressed regret Wednesday that the families of the 12 dead coal miners were mistakenly led to believe for three hours that their loved ones were alive," the Associated Press reported late today.

The expression came too late to stave off criticism that the news media were partly to blame for spreading false information. The crucial three hours began as midnight neared and newspapers were going to press, and led to many delivering embarrassing headlines to readers' doorsteps. "Miner miracle: America's prayers answered," was one that screamed from the Boston Herald. "Miracle in W. Va.: Alive!" trumpeted the New York Daily News.

The afternoon Inter-Mountain newspaper of Elkins, W.Va., near the coal mine where the workers were trapped, never reported the erroneous information. "Something was not right," editor Linda Skidmore, told Editor & Publisher. "There was so much hype that no one considered the fact that there was no [official] update."

E&P editor Greg Mitchell called the coverage "one of the most disturbing media performances of its kind in recent years . . . It was 'Dewey Defeats Truman' all over again."

But editors of color were not so sure.

"There obviously was some miscommunication in West Virginia," Greg Moore, editor of the Denver Post, told Journal-isms. "The governor and other officials were relaying what they considered miraculous news that most of the miners had managed to survive. The media did not mess that up. So I don't know what the papers were supposed to do, especially here out West where we have some time advantages compared to East Coast papers. Given the confirmation and the wire bulletins, we owed it to our readers to get that news out if deadline allowed and it did. Fortunately, when the news changed we were able to catch some papers with the latest, most up-to-date news, tragic news."

He said "a substantial part of our run had the euphoric news that most of the miners had been found alive," but that about 80,000 papers had the updated (PDF), corrected news.

"The only lesson: To be fast in getting the most accurate information on the press," Moore said by e-mail. "And I think we were. And second, your websites become very important. We had the latest, most up-to-date information on our website throughout the evening and early morning. Anyone looking there was not misled at all."

Michael Days, editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, said in Editor & Publisher that editors had to take blame when their stories were wrong, no matter what the reason. "The paper is responsible for everything in the paper and if there is an inaccuracy, in this case a huge one, you have to take responsibility," Days said. "We are in the business of reporting truth and we can't just ignore it."

"Newsroom staffers roused Days from bed at about 3 a.m. after word spread that the miners had died. At that point, the Daily News had already printed about 120,000 copies (PDF) with an incorrect Associated Press story, with another 30,000 to go. Days said the decision was made to continue printing because a system shutdown for maintenance barred editors from changing the paper's content. He planned to run an editor's note in Thursday's paper explaining, as well as a likely story on how the misinformation was spread," Joe Strupp reported.

Many papers did run such explanations on their Web sites today, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia, where Glenn Proctor is executive editor; and the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio, where Debra Adams-Simmons is editor.

"The lesson: be very skeptical of unconfirmed information. Even the story we published said the reports of survivors could not be confirmed," Adams-Simmons told Journal-isms, noting that she was not involved in the decisions on how to handle the story. The man who was involved, Managing Editor Mike Burbach, told Journal-isms the lesson was always to be aware of "where the information is coming from, what you know for sure and what you have to qualify."

"We also have a clock tower with scrolling headlines that had to be altered this morning because the information was inaccurate," Adams-Simmons added.

At the Macon Telegraph in Georgia -- where editor Sherrie Marshall agreed "we got burned!" -- a story was planned for Thursday "saying we were among newspapers that printed an incorrect story and explaining how the story got into print. we will have a front page centerpiece story about what happened at the mine and refer to my short story (written as a note to readers) inside with the jump," she said by e-mail.

Wanda Lloyd, executive editor at the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, whose headline read, "Twelve miners found alive," told Journal-isms that the wire-service copy was wanting: "We ran the story about the miners' survival in both of our editions. When I left about 9:30 p.m. I left instructions for the page one editor to stay close to the story and make changes up to the last minute before deadlines. He did just that. In the first edition we used the AP lead that attributed the news to 'family members.' Regrettably, the AP writethru we used for the second edition moved that attribution down in the story.

"I'll probably make this the topic of my Sunday column."

Some Spanish-language newspapers – including the three editions of Hoy, Al Dia in Dallas and La Opinion in Los Angeles – were limited by early deadlines, which proved to be a blessing and a curse.

Pedro Rojas, editor of La Opinion, which calls itself the nation's largest Spanish-language newspaper, with a daily circulation of 125,000, said he went home at 4:30 p.m. and called in a change in the paper at 11:15 p.m. after seeing on television the news that 12 miners were alive. By the time he heard that the 12 were dead, there was no one in the pressroom and the erroneous story had to stand. "The lesson is that we need more press capacity," he said. "For us, it's terrible not to have that story." But, he said, "you have to deal with what you've got."

At Al Dia (PDF), owned by the Dallas Morning News, the headline read, "Encuentian cadaver de minero; sigue busqueda" ("Body of a miner found; search continues.") "We have a 9:45 p.m. nightly deadline because of the DMN press capacities so we had a similar headline to the national edition of the New York Times, for example," editor Gilbert Bailon told Journal-isms. "In this rare case, the earlier deadline proved to be a benefit."

For Hoy, which publishes in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, "Covers were fine in CHI and NY, with the latest info available at press time," said Javier Aldape, editor and vice president for product and audience development. "We have two editions in NY . . . the last drops before midnight, so it had nothing about the rescue. In LA we first ran with the rescue, but the press caught it in time, we dumped the press run up to that point, and ran an updated story. . . . Bottom line, we didn't run the 'rescue' anywhere."

So what prompted the blunder in the first place?

Ben Hatfield, chief executive of miner owner International Coal Group, "said the mistake resulted from a miscommunication among the rescue crews," AP reported. "Another ICG executive, vice president Gene Kitts, suggested that the misunderstanding resulted because the rescuers in the mine were wearing full-face oxygen masks when they used radios to report their findings to their base.

". . . He said that overnight, after it appeared that that the miners may not be dead after [all], the company sent word that the initial report of 12 survivors might have been wrong. But he said the message never got to the family members at the time."

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Columnists of Color Let Religious Sides Show

Critics who claim that journalists are agnostic, atheist or otherwise unchurched wouldn't find much evidence in columns by journalists of color over the last few weeks.

"Today, I bring you not glad tidings, but shocking news," Wendi C. Thomas wrote in her Memphis Commercial Appeal column on Dec. 20.

"Santa Claus was not present at Christ's birth. The wise men did not emerge from a stand of Christmas trees, real or artificial, to present their gifts to the Savior." Her column was headlined, "Time to recall that Santa isn't the Savior."

"Most of us know that the season's deeper meaning has nothing to do with whether retailers hang banners saying 'Merry Christmas' or 'Happy Holidays'," Cynthia Tucker wrote on Christmas in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It has much more to do with how we treat one another – including the most vulnerable among us." Her column was headlined, "God helps those who help others."

Dawn Turner Trice, writing in the Chicago Tribune, told readers that one of her New Year's resolutions was to find a new church home, and devoted her space Jan. 2 to readers' comments "about religion, the church and the challenges of finding one that fits."

"My New Year's resolutions for 2006 include studying the Bible more, going back to Sunday school and doing some of the exercises featured in Sarah Ban Breathnach's book The Simple Abundance Companion: Following Your Authentic Path to Something More," wrote Betty Bayé in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

David Person, writing Dec. 30 in the Huntsville Times in Alabama, began by noting, "Every week, the names of four young men and one young woman are published in my church's bulletin: Tyrone Crutcher, Doron Pyfrom, Stephen D. Gunn, Rodney Williams Jr. and Brittany Scruggs." Then he turned to the war in Iraq and noted that his church was reminding its parishioners to pray for those he named. "At the end of the day, we who pray for our military keep on praying, even as we pray for this war to end quickly - and pray for our soldiers to return home safe and sound."

Not all of the religiosity was Christian.

"I hardly claim to speak for all Muslims, who are as diverse as humanity. But count me among those for whom this day highlights the spirit of love and humility that Jesus taught and lived," C.B. Hanif, an editorial writer at the Palm Beach Post in Florida, wrote on Christmas Day.

Hanif's column was similar to a sentiment expressed by Jabari Asim of on Dec. 12: "I haven't celebrated Christmas since I was a child, but I continue to receive Christmas cards in the mail from friends and acquaintances. Many of them make specific reference to Jesus. Although Kwanzaa is my holiday of choice, I'm never offended. In fact, I'm pleased that folks would take time out to think of me and my family during a time of great importance to them," he said.

And in the Grand Forks Tribune in North Dakota, Dorreen Yellow Bird reviewed the year on Dec. 31, concluding, "I am thankful to the Creator for the gift of adventure and keeping all of us safe for another year. This year, I see even more clearly 'we are all related' plants, animals, birds and people all."

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Vargas Gets Critics' OK After First Night

The new ABC-TV "World News Tonight" anchor team of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff got a passing grade from the critics after their debut broadcast Tuesday night.

"Though there was nothing spectacular about the broadcast, journalistically, it was a competent performance across the board," David Zurawik wrote in the Baltimore Sun. "As for presentation, give the network credit for having Vargas, who anchored solo last night in New York, dress in a modest, professional manner rather than trying to glam her up with dramatic makeup, jewelry and leather the way female anchors on the cable channels and newsmagazines are often adorned."

"There were no first-night mistakes, no opening-day jitters, just a solid newscast on a relatively slow news day," David Bianculli wrote in the New York Daily News.

Joanna Weiss said in the Boston Globe, "It seems ABC was building a newscast the way it might a political ticket, studying demographics, considering interest groups. Woodruff has chops, but a single, good-looking man in the chair might seem too old-school. Vargas has pizzazz, but maybe the newshounds would see her as soft. So rather than taking a risk and just anointing someone, the network has tried to please everyone." Vargas' father is Puerto Rican.

Study Links Underage Drinking, Ads for Alcohol

"The first national study of liquor advertising and its effects on youth confirms what many have long suspected – that young people who see more ads for alcoholic beverages tend to drink more," Hilary Waldman wrote Tuesday in the Hartford Courant.

"The study conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut and Ohio State University could offer the first sound evidence that limiting liquor advertising should be part of a national strategy to reduce underage drinking."

Advertisers were quick to dispute the findings, as James B. Arndorfer and Ira Teinowitz reported the same day in Advertising Age. Dick O'Brien, executive vice president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, said, "We've seen over the last several decades that as alcohol-advertising spending increased underage drinking substantially decreased. The raw facts of the marketplace contradict the main finding of the report," he said.

"A spokesman for Miller Brewing Co. . . . noted that that the vast majority of youth in Roper Youth Reports cite their parents as having the most influence over whether they drink," the Ad Age story said.

A 2003 study by Georgetown University's Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth found that young African Americans see far more than their share of the $333 million worth of advertising placed in major magazines by the nation's alcohol industry.

Black Entertainment Television began running hard-liquor ads in 1996. In March, CNN accepted commercials for distilled spirits.

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Short Takes

  • "Kidnappers in Iraq, political assassins in Beirut, and hit men in the Philippines made murder the leading cause of work-related deaths among journalists worldwide in 2005, a new analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows," the organization reported Tuesday. Forty-seven journalists were killed in 2005, more than three-quarters of whom were murdered to silence their criticism or punish them for their work. . . . That compares with 57 deaths in 2004, just under two-thirds of which were murders."
  • "Spanish-formatted commercial radio grew by nine stations in December – enough of a gain to move the programming category up from sixth to fifth place among the ranks of 22 format categories tracked monthly by the Billboard/M Street Format Monitor, Tony Sanders reported Tuesday for that publication. "At the end of December, there were 690 commercial stations targeting the Hispanic community with everything from Spanish News/Talk to Regional Mexican to major-market presentations of Reggaeton."
  • "Stepping up its commitment to news, Air America Radio announced Tuesday that Felipe Luciano was named vp of news, a new position. Luciano will oversee an evolving network news department, which currently produces original newscasts at the top of the hour on weekdays 6 a.m.-11 p.m," Katy Bachman reported Tuesday for Mediaweek. "He'll also provide commentaries for the network and serve as AAR's midday newscaster, along with Wayne Gillman and Bill Crowley."
  • Chinese journalist Jiang Weiping, who was jailed on subversion charges after reporting on corruption, has been released early from prison, ahead of a planned U.S. visit by President Hu Jintao, a U.S.-based activist announced Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
  • "Despite a tumultuous year in which an editor quit after just two months, the newsroom operated without a general assignment reporter for a brief period, the daily cut its frequency from five days a week to four, and an African American activist group declared a boycott of the black-owned paper, the Chicago Defender cleared a profit in 2005, Executive Editor Roland S. Martin says," Mark Fitzgerald wrote today in Editor & Publisher. "Frankly, it's the first time the Chicago Defender has shown a profit since 1984," Martin was quoted as saying.
  • The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, a diversity initiative at the college level by the New York Times Co., will again be held at Dillard University in now-flood-damaged New Orleans, director Don Hecker said today. "Students will find right in front of them great issues, important stories, and the testimony of ordinary people coping with extraordinary events," he said. The Institute will be held May 13-27. The Times pays all expenses, including travel. The application deadline is Feb. 25.
  • Nayaba Arinde, a senior staff writer at the Daily Challenge newspaper in New York, has been hired as editor at the New York Amsterdam News, the paper announced Dec. 22. She succeeds Jamal Watson, who left in November after being accused of embezzlement. He denies the charge.
  • "Creative dynamo S. Renee Mitchell," columnist for the Portland Oregonian, has been "named the winner of the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism," Women's eNews announced Sunday. It described Mitchell as "a Pulitzer Prize-nominated columnist, poet, playwright, teacher, publisher and single mother who uses her artistic energy to encourage women to find emotional healing through writing."
  • Hollis Towns, managing editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, wrote after visiting the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C.: "I knew that sometimes I could be an ass. And insensitive. And unsympathetic. Insufferable. Demanding, among others. But, boy, I didn't know how much." His confession appeared in EnqSpots, a newsroom newsletter.
  • The Los Angeles Times today ran a front-page piece by Chris Kraul that said, "Although Colombia has had a large displaced population for two decades, its size has increased quickly in recent months, experts say, and a disproportionate number of them are . . . Afro-Colombians. They are targeted because they lack political clout and sophistication at a time when their rural homes have become economically attractive."
  • Native American activist and journalist Suzan Shown Harjo presented her 2005 Mantle of Shame Awards in the Dec. 22 issue of Indian Country Today to: "Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon, Ralph Reed and other lobbyists for taking Native nations' money, greasing the palms of cronies and intentionally or coincidentally harming the tribes that were paying them top dollar for their help. Scanlon is singing like a canary and Abramoff is poised to join him on the perch."
  • The Wilmington Journal in North Carolina editorialized Dec. 30 about "the Wilmington 1898 Race Riot Commission's report: 450-pages recounting the sinister, unconstitutional overthrow of Wilmington city government, the destruction of our city's and the South's only Black daily newspaper, and the bloody, brutal slaughter of an unknown number of Wilmington's Black citizens." It scolded powers-that-be for not using the black press and other means to secure sufficient oral testimony from descendants of those affected by the riot.
  • "Florida Vibrations," a locally produced television show that highlights movers and shakers in the black community, was the subject of an article by Jennifer Jefferson Tuesday in the Tallahassee Democrat. The show airs at 10 a.m. Sundays on the UPN affiliate.

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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