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Tragedy in West Virginia: did religious exuberance lead to bad reporting and false hopes?

IT WAS A DRAMA THAT kept many Americans glued to overnight cable television news coverage and fueled prayerful hopes of a "miracle" on behalf of endangered coal miners in West Virginia.

It began around 6:30 a.m. on Monday, January 2, 2006, when an explosion in the Sago mine trapped thirteen workers in the state's deadliest mining accident since November 1968. The earlier incident in Marion County, an hour's drive north, had prompted Congress to enact the Mine Health and Safety Act. Now the Sago catastrophe unleashed a small army of news reporters and politicians who descended on the small town of Tallmansville as rescuers slowly worked their way to the point it was thought the miners were trapped.

To understand what happened next, one needs to know that religious faith in West Virginia runs as deep as the mines that dot its landscape, with 79 percent of the citizenry embracing some variant of Protestantism. The occasional snake-handler can still be found (there are no statutes banning the practice) and any elected official--including a Democrat like Governor Joe Manchin--has to acknowledge the role of religion at the ballot box and in the lives of many citizens. Therefore, as with many tragedies, religious faith was part of the tapestry enveloping the victims, friends and relatives, public officials, rescue personnel and, of course, the news media. "Praying for a miracle" seemed to be a phrase on everyone's lips, including the television anchors and reporters desperately working to keep the information coherent while beating the competition. It was almost de rigueur that relatives had gathered at a church, in this case the nearby Sago Baptist Church, for an emotional vigil. Governor Manchin reportedly spent his time moving between the church and a "command center" trying to coordinate the efforts of rescue workers as well as field the bombardment of questions from the media.

Aside from the professionals taking on the risky task of entering the mine, testing the air for combustible gases, and slowly edging their way toward the last known location of the trapped men, the people on the surface appeared to be riding an emotional roller-coaster.

Along with the reporters, rescue workers, and officials on the scene, there were, according to USA Today, a number of clergy and Red Cross volunteers trying to comfort relatives and youngsters. "Piano music and singing could be heard" So were "wonderful hymns," according to a relative of one of the trapped miners.

"A few miles away, in the county seat, Buckhannon," reported the paper, "signs of support sprouted. 'Pray for the miners and their families; read the sign at Domino's Pizza." News anchors and commentators were relentless in describing how "people here are praying for a miracle,"

Then, before midnight on Tuesday, January 3, one man, Terry Helms, was found dead. Shortly thereafter Randall McCloy Jr. was found alive but unconscious. Rescuers immediately relayed the news to their base. This raised hopes that the other workers had managed to make it out of harm's way, thus buying time until they, too, could be reached by emergency personnel. What followed, according to International Coal Group CEO Ben Hatfield, were uncontrolled cell phone conversations that spread erroneous information.

After that, things got out of hand.

Word broke at 11:52 PM in an Associated Press wire story that family members had been told the twelve remaining miners had been found alive. Many newspapers in the eastern part of the country were on or past their deadlines but others jumped on the story. The New York Times ran with it, saying in its Wednesday morning edition that the accounts of survivors came from "family members and a state official." Headlines spread the cheer: "12 Miners Found Alive 41 Hours After Explosion" and "Joy At Mine: 12 Are Alive" The Pittsburg Post-Gazette declared "Miracle at Sago, 12 Miners Alive."

The church seems to have been the ignition point of the joyous but unverified rumor: "families began streaming out of the church, yelling 'They're alive!' The church's bells began ringing and families embraced:' Politicians proclaimed the rescue a miracle.

But the facts were otherwise. Thirty minutes after McCloy was found alive and removed unconscious from the mine, rescuers seem to have learned of the rumor and told company officials that it was incorrect. Hatfield claims that he then asked state troopers to tell the clergy there were now conflicting reports. But such news didn't reach family members for another two-and-a-half hours, at around 3:00 a.m., January 4, when Hatfield confirmed publicly that McCloy was the only survivor. The remaining twelve miners had been found dead.

At this revelation, when people realized that their miracle was no more, an ugly, combative atmosphere developed at the Sago Baptist Church. According to the Associated Press, a fight broke out in the church and state troopers and a SWAT team were sent in due to concerns about violence. A woman who lost her cousin in the tragedy lamented, "We had a miracle and it was taken from us."

It may be too much to require human beings under such profound stress to be totally rational and levelheaded, especially when lives of close relations hang in the balance. But, as we look back, what needs to be asked is, did unrealistic expectations fueled by religious enthusiasm contribute to the double tragedy that took place in Tallmansville, West Virginia? After nearly two days of vigil, prayer, and emotional stress, did hope of a miracle short circuit the process by which public officials, and especially the news media, are supposed to verify claims and confirm reports? It is a question with deep significance in an age of fast-moving electronic journalism where reporters, officials, and others in the glare of the studio and camera lights are often enveloped in a frenetic rush to judgment. So did this, along with the inevitable cultural consensus against any criticism of religion, let alone any timid examination of religious claims and sentiments, result in the tragic information meltdown?

After the intoxicating news that the hoped-for miracle had come true and prayers had been answered turned to dust, NBC News Anchor Brian Williams confessed, "The coverage was joyous, breathless and few cautions were ever voiced.... What an awful night for the news media." Larry Eichel of Knight Ridder news service noted that in the wake of the letdown, "Analysts generally were measured in their criticism, with some wondering how reporters could maintain skepticism in the face of ringing church bells and celebrating relatives."

And what about pronouncements from authority figures like the governor who also seemed caught up in the enthusiastic, hopeful yet unverified, claim that there were survivors? "The question that a lot of journalists probably wish had been asked of the governor is, 'How do you know that?" said former Philadelphia Inquirer managing editor Butch Ward, senior follow at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank based in Florida. "The national press corps is asking it more often to officials in Washington and being called arrogant for asking. But it's an important question to ask."

Did network anchors go over the top, buoyed by the religiously charged euphoria and claims of a miracle? Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher, a news media trade journal, called the heady and unsubstantiated reporting "one of the most disturbing media performances of its kind in recent years." "For hours," Mitchell noted, "starting just before midnight, newspaper reporters and anchors such as MSNBC's Rita Cosby interviewed euphoric loved ones and helped spread the news about the miracle rescue. Newspaper web sites announced the happy news and many put it into print for Wednesday at deadline."

The truth was hurtful and tragic. Rescue workers had conveyed the information that they had located twelve bodies. But somewhere between this news, the command tent, and the intense, emotionally charged atmosphere at the church, the word "alive" became part of the reportorial mix and no one thought to question it.

If there is responsibility for what occurred in West Virginia, it must certainly be shared by many. Everyone seemed to want, then expect, a miracle--although rescue and mine officials maintained a sober and almost guarded stance throughout the whole incident.

Media was in frenzy and many people turned to the refuge they often seek out in times of tragedy, devastation and stress. Alas, no god answered. Religious faith became an instrument of unrealistic expectations and tragic self-deception.

As an atheist concerned about the human condition, I sympathize with the fate of the victims and survivors. Tragedies like this confirm the obvious: minimizing the number and impact of such devastating events is up to human beings, not the fates and deities of religious faith. We can and should empathize with the profound grief of relatives and loved ones who have endured an enormous loss. In times of catastrophe, however, unrealistic expectations immersed in faith can magnify human suffering for survivors and warp the objectivity of important social institutions, including the news media.

Conrad Goeringer is senior staff writer for American Atheist magazine and director of online services for American Atheists. This article is a revised and updated version of his analysis posted January 5, 2006, to the online edition of American Atheist (http://americanatheist. org/columns/ontar4.html).
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Title Annotation:THE POPULAR CONDITION; mine accidents
Author:Goeringer, Conrad F.
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1U5WV
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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