Integrity Matters
January 11, 2006

News junkies demand news and demand it first

Question: (E-223)

Dear Jim:

Who is responsible for the blunder announcing a dozen West Virginia coal miners were alive, when, in fact, all but one were dead?


Actor Jack Nicholson, portraying ruthless Colonel Jessup, in a movie entitled "A Few Good Men" said the following in response to interrogation about his culpability for actions taken by individuals under his command: "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!"

He was defending his actions that lead to the murder of a young Marine. To the very end, his responses to the hideous events were simply that, in his world, people die. Colonel Jessup provides a clue in answering your question about who is responsible for the dissemination of misinformation.

This is the truth about who is responsible for this media disaster: it is you, and if not you in particular, then it is "news junkies" who demand news, immediately. News executives understand that "being first" with breaking news attracts larger audiences, increasing profits. Information hounds stay with the channel that gives them immediate gratification, using the simple reasoning that news is on the air now, 24 hours per day, and they have to be updated, constantly. News organizations sensed a feeding frenzy in West Virginia, directed hordes of reporters to descend on Tallmansville, W.Va., wanting to be first with whatever events were unfolding with 13 coal miners caught in an explosion and trapped (and later killed) by toxic gasses.

With little respect for the families of those whose loved ones might be living their last hours in a tomb hundreds of feet below, microphones and cameras invaded privacy. Sensational, news-junkie-friendly updates (accurate or not) became the currency for those competing for "me first" updates.

Church bells and anxiety transformed simple hope into reality and garbled messages from emergency workers wearing gas masks emerged as indisputable facts. And, who placed this pressure on reporters to get the news out so quickly? It was those who wanted to know, now, what was happening. Such immature expectations create circumstances that were and are impossible to address appropriately. Not to be on top of the situation causes watchers to flip channels; and who can afford to lose market share and profits?

The impatience and immaturity of contemporary culture created the circumstances for this hideous treatment of humble West Virginia coal miners and their families.

This is an integrity problem that can be solved with graciousness, respect and discipline - not only for victims, but also for the institutions committed to quality news reporting. Allowing professionals to do their jobs requires integrity-centered behaviors, including patience and graciousness.

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