Death by journalism and other travesties of error

by Brian Clarey

I killed a guy once.

I don’t like to talk about it.

I had no excuse and no reason. I had never even met him. But I killed him nonetheless, without malice or forethought and virtually no emotion. That came later.

I was young and lazy and I’ll never do it again, but that doesn’t change what I did.

It’s not exactly like you might think: I didn’t shoot him or strangle him or slit his throat and pull his tongue from out the wound (though, I’ve been told, that’s the way to do it). I did this guy in with words, and it was as easy as eating a piece of cheese.

Let me tell you the story.

This was years ago, when my freelance writing career had started to take hold. I was on assignment for a regional magazine which shall remain nameless (don’t want to burn any of those bridges, yo), working on a comprehensive piece about breakfast. Yeah that’s right, breakfast’… eggs, bacon, pancakes’… the whole thing. I grabbed my photographer (also nameless ‘— why sully his good name?) and we hit the road, determined to make the story of breakfast in North Carolina our own.

We headed west to the mountains. We found little-known ham and eggeries in the heartlands. But it was on the coast, in Wilmington, where we discovered a family-owned omelet joint nestled in a strip of suburban sprawl.

I remember the food was good, particularly the peaches and cheese omelet, way better than it sounds. I also remember the owner, another nameless character, telling me his father started the business but that he had taken it over.

Somewhere in the exchange I got the impression that his father was dead, and that’s the way I wrote that portion of the story.

Everything was just fine until I got a phone call from the proprietor of the omelet shop.

‘“Great article,’” he said. I basked. The first meal of the day in the Old North State would become synonymous with my name. ‘“But just one thing,’” he continued. ‘“Dad’s not dead.’”

I was stunned.

‘“Are you sure?’” I asked him.

True story, and one that flared across my mind last week when the story of the West Virginia coal miners broke, then was updated and then broke again in the cold, sobering light of a Wednesday morning.

The story of the men who perished in a collapsed shaft was one of far-reaching repercussions. It, like Hurricane Katrina before it, exemplified the crumbling American infrastructure and the things that have gone to seed while our attentions were elsewhere. It personified the plight of the blue-collar workingman and the perils he faces each day to put food on his table. And it is, at its core, a story of suffering and loss.

But as the case of the collapsed coal mine played out, it became a media story.

In the last remaining hour of the day, a misunderstood cell phone conversation led to a mistaken report claiming that 12 of the 13 trapped men were still alive. The information was corrected about three hours later.

In that three hours many newspapers across the country, including, I’m afraid, the Greensboro News & Record, USA Today and pretty much every other daily paper on the East Coast ran with the initial update, splashing the good news across their front pages before putting their papers to bed at a somewhat reasonable hour.

‘“Coal Miners Beat Odds,’” was one of the headlines on newsstands and front porches Wednesday morning.

This is no dead omelet entrepreneur.

It does bear resemblance to the ‘“Dewey Defeats Truman’” episode, except when the Chicago Daily Tribune ran that erroneous headline after the 1948 presidential election they at least pinned the slack on a newspaper strike and inexperienced scabs. The lack, in 1948, of e-mail, cell phones, satellite communication, digital printing methods and even frigging videotape and fax machines makes the Tribune’s mistake a tad more forgivable.

But I’m sympathetic to the papers that dropped the ball last Tuesday night because, as it seems, the ball they were given to run with was, to extend the metaphor, not exactly regulation.

Every entity that is in the business of disseminating information ‘— radio and television news departments, electronic newsletters, weekly freebies, even (and especially) the blogs ‘— must at some point rely on a chain of information which is, of course, only as strong as its weakest link.

It was a rescue official who got the story wrong last Tuesday night. A wire service stringer working the kind of detail that usually has an unflattering appellation attached to it ‘— waiting for the bodies at an all-night wintertime stint near a West Virginia coal mine ‘— passed the bad story. It spread among the other reporters on the scene, leaked to the family members of the trapped miners, bled onto our nation’s front pages and was even accepted by the West Virginia Governor’s office as truth.

When I killed the omelet maker there was a happy ending. Ditto with the ‘“Dewey Defeats Truman’” story, at least for Truman. The tale of the deceased coal miners has no similar upbeat twist. But the lesson to be derived from each example is the same: the people are depending on reporters to get it right. Every time.

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