January 11, 2006
News junkies demand news and demand
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
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
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
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
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.