Last night, viewers following the effort to rescue the 13 trapped miners in Sago, West Virginia, witnessed an incredible example of the fallibility of the 24/7 news media. Sometime before midnight EST, major media outlets, including Fox News, CNN, the New York Times, USA Today, and the Associated Press began to report that 12 of the 13 miners had survived. WV Governor Joe Manchin, the media said, had visited the tiny Sago Baptist Church, where the families of the men were gathered, and declared that "Miracles do happen." At the same time, "Bells at the church rang out as family members ran out screaming in jubilation. Relatives yelled 'They're alive!'" (AP)
As an air of religious gratitude took hold, CNN's Anderson Cooper and his cohort began to interview and congratulate dozens of ecstatic family, community and church members, repeatedly asking their subjects if they had prayed for the safe return of the miners, if they had "kept the faith" during the 40 grim hours before the men were rescued, and if they believed the rescue was a miracle. The questions were met in all cases with an enthusiastic yes. See the following quotes from the print outlets to get a flavor of what was happening on TV:
"It's a miracle," said Loretta Ables, who said her fiancé, Fred Ware, was among the survivors. "Everyone was telling us they were probably dead." (NYT)
"Helen Winans, whose son Marshall Winans, was one of those trapped, said she believes there was divine intervention. "The Lord takes care of them," she said. (NYT)
"Miracles happen in West Virginia and today we got one," said Charlotte Weaver, wife of Jack Weaver, one of the men who had been trapped in the mine. (AP)
It was no surprise that people believed they were witnessing a miracle. Earlier, as the rescue team approached the area of the mine where the trapped men were thought to be, the mine's CEO, Ben Hatfield said at a press conference that for the men to come out alive, "we need a miracle." They'd been trapped underground for two days without food, water or heat, and in an atmosphere that rescuers said appeared to contain almost three times the lethal level of carbon monoxide.
So when the initial news broke that the miners survived -- that they'd defied odds so steep that hours before, no rescue expert anywhere was giving them a realistic chance -- how does the media respond? Not with skepticism, of course. That would mean doubting these guys had survived. A miracle is a way better ending!
As word reached Anderson Cooper that the story he'd been reporting for three hours was completely wrong, and that a dozen families were now hearing that their loved one had in fact not been saved, Cooper first became pale, then looked panicked, and then declared himself to be "at a complete loss for words." In the embarrassing tumult that followed, a stuttering Cooper tried to explain that it was not the media who had gotten the story wrong, but the misinformed families from whom the media had gotten the story.
To be fair, it appeared that at one point almost everyone thought the rumor was true, including the governor, rescue workers at the site, and even Hatfield, the mine's CEO. The problem was, after Hatfield and his team discovered that the information was suspect, they never released an official statement to quell the happy rumors, which therefore continued to spread and compound until they achieved the level of veracity that gets false information into the headlines of multiple major newspapers.
Even now, three hours after the truth came out, blushing CNN anchors are holding up copies of those newspapers, showing that CNN was not the only outlet that got the story wrong. One is tempted to sympathize. It was clearly a chaotic and emotional situation -- so many people seemed so sure that the miners were alive and well (at one point, there were even reports that they were on their way to the church to reunite with family members), that there appeared to be no reason to doubt the happy news. Everyone believed it!
But hold the sympathy until you consider the real moral of the story: CNN, and the rest of the TV and print crew got so caught up in the hysteria of the situation (one that, by the way, they'd helped so much to amplify in the first place), that they never bothered to verify the story's only important part: its outcome.