Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The mine disaster: Attribution's your friend

There's an instructive turning point in the AP's coverage of the West Virginia mine disaster. It reminds us, or ought to remind us, of a few phrases that ought to be translated into Latin and etched in stone above the copy desk, so we can point to them when needed:

1) If attribution is part of the story, it's part of the hed.
2) Speculation isn't confirmation.
3) Repetition isn't confirmation.

You can trace the event in more detail elsewhere, so let's concentrate here on matters of importance to desk hands and other nightwalkers (and yes, this is your invitation to join in the discussion and/or recount what went on at your paper).

Here's the AP at 10:16p:
TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. -- Rescue crews found one body late Tuesday in a West Virginia mine where 13 miners were trapped after an explosion, but they held out hope that the others were still alive, even as precious time continued to slip away.

And the 26th lede, at 10:56p:
TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. --Twelve miners caught in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive Tuesday night, more than 41 hours after the blast, family members said.

This graf is one of four added in the 27th lede, at 11:01:
Neither the company nor the governor's office immediately confirmed the news.

... and this in the 28th lede, which moved four minutes later with a change in byline:
A relative at the church said a mine foreman called relatives there, saying the miners had been found.

At 11:15p the story's written through, with the no-confirmation warning and the attribution still in place. At 11:25p comes the 30th lede and the big change:
TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. -- In an extraordinary twist of fate, 12 miners caught in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive late Tuesday, more than 41 hours after the blast.

Here's the ednote from the top of the story and the new fourth graf supporting it:
Eds: UPDATES with governor confirming miners are alive, other details.
"They told us they have 12 alive," Gov. Joe Manchin said. "We have some people that are going to need some medical attention."

If your mind is flashing back to September, it should be:
A major American city all but disintegrated yesterday, and the expected death toll from Hurricane Katrina mushroomed into the thousands.

...Nagin confirmed what many knew in their hearts, but could not bring themselves to say.

"Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands," he said when asked how many perished just in New Orleans in this week's natural assault on what had been one of the nation's largest, most popular, most carefree of cities.

It's pretty clear (and was pretty clear then) that what the mayor is doing is "speculating" -- not "confirming." There's nothing wrong with that (we don't have much room to complain, since we seem to have asked him to speculate), but we need to not get the two domains mixed up.

In the AP's case, somebody should have asked a nice, simple grammar question: "What's the antecedent of 'they'?" And until the governor clarified whether "they" was the people in touch with the rescue crews or the folks at the church who got the bad phone call, the attribution, and the caution, needed to stay. Bad information doesn't get better by repetition. But by now, the prose train has left the station:

Twelve miners caught in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive Tuesday night, sending family members streaming from the church where they had gathered during the nearly two-day ordeal.

... and heds like "Miner Miracle"* are the predictably ugly result.

Some cooler heads are making good points out of this. Scott Libin at Poynter encourages "maintaining newsrooms that encourage contrarians." Which all newsrooms do, until there's a story too good to listen to the contrarians on. Tommy this and Tommy that.

The nearby contention that overstating heds is really a pretty good idea seems silly and contradictory: "The phrase I've always used is 'If we're going to be hung, let's be hung for sheep, not lambs.' I mean, you might as well state the full text of what you've got and if you've got it wrong, you correct it the next day."

Last point first: The "full text of what you've got here" is, or ought to be, "Some people say somebody at the mine, whom they couldn't identify, told them all the miners were safe." Meaning that if you stick to what you know, there's no need to be hung (I think he meant "hanged," but we all slip up in speech) for anything (and you have to wonder if he meant wolf and sheep, rather than sheep and lamb, as his metaphors). Grrrr. I mean baaaaaa.

There's a favorite sermon in all this: Rules (or policies, or SOPs, or whatever you want to call them) are for big stories as well as little ones. An alleged "miracle" is the time to insist on attribution, not to throw it away like so many crutches at Lourdes. If you're going to boast about your contrarians, encourage them when they really are the only voice for caution.

Anybody got a tale from the front to share?

* Oh, for pity's sake.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Circular sourcing bites.

Remember the reporting by Judith Miller on WMD for The New York Times? Often, her two sources were Chalabi and the U.S. government, which was getting its info from ... Chalabi.

I vote in favor of Fred's "look for the antecedent" advice.

From the newspaper front: I was not working last night, but comrades tell me they held onto the bulletin until they saw the words "the governor said," and got it into as many papers as possible, which wasn't a huge number because of our 12:15 deadline (which they busted). And the governor got his info from ... ?

12:08 AM, January 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sad to discover that Caller ID apparently doesn't work in WVA. People keep insisting they got a call from "somebody" telling them the good news.

Perhaps this is the "somebody" character from the Family Circus comic strip, whose calls, like his footsteps, cannot be traced.

11:13 AM, January 05, 2006  

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