Wednesday, January 04, 2006

fundamental attribution error

No, I'm not talking about psychology: When is attribution necessary? Only when the news is bad? Obviously, the answer is no. But check out these three wire services stories (and the two write-thrus that followed):

of The Associated Press
TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. _ Twelve of the 13 miners trapped in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive late Tuesday after more than 41 hours underground, turning a community's worst fears to unbridled joy. Family members streamed from the church where they had kept vigil, shouting "Praise the Lord!"
Bells at the church rang out as family members ran out screaming in jubilation. Relatives yelled "They're alive!"
"They told us they have 12 alive," said Gov. Joe Manchin, leader of the nation's No. 2 coal-producing state. "We have some people that are going to need some medical attention."

By Jonathan Peterson and Stephen Braun
of the Los Angeles Times
TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. -- In a dramatic end to two days of desperation in the West Virginia hollows, rescuers late Tuesday found
12 exhausted coal miners alive deep inside a remote mineshaft, threatened by rising concentrations of deadly carbon monoxide gas.
The body of a 13th miner was found earlier in the night by searchers, leading to grim speculation that the other men missing since an explosion in the mine Monday were also likely dead. But just before midnight, the roar of jubilant shouts from rescue crews near the mine entrance signaled that searchers proceeding cautiously 260 feet below ground had found all the remaining miners.

By Ann Scott Tyson
of The Washington Post
SAGO, W.Va. _ A dozen miners trapped 12,000 feet into a mountainside since early Monday were found alive Tuesday night just hours after rescuers found the body of a 13th man, who died in an explosion in an adjacent coal mine that was sealed off in early December.
The bells at the Sago Baptist Church pealed, and joyous relatives rushed outside to celebrate their miracle: Miners surfacing after being underground in the cold, damp chamber for 41 hours. Gov. Joe Manchin III said some would need medical attention.
"Everybody ran from the church screaming, `They're alive! They're coming!'" said Loretta Ables, whose fiance, Fred Ware, was among the missing miners. She had lost hope when she learned about the dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide in the mine, but she was elated as she waited outside the church. "I feel great, very great."

Now, check out these:

of The Associated Press
TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. _ Family members learned early Wednesday that 11 of the 12 coal miners who were initially thought to have survived an explosion in a coal mine have died.
Families learned of the deaths from mine officials more than three hours after Gov. Joe Manchin said he had been told 12 of the miners survived the disaster. The sole survivor of the disaster was hospitalized, a doctor said.

By Jonathan Peterson and Stephen Braun
of the Los Angeles Times
TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. -- Only hours after family members were told that 12 coal miners had been found alive, officials announced Wednesday morning that in fact only one had survived Monday morning's explosion.
Jubilation had broken out when word that rescuers near the mine entrance signaled that they had found a dozen men 41 hours after the deadly explosion. But three hours later, families learned that only one person, Ronald McCloy, had been transported alive to the hospital.

The back story, revealed in some of the reports to varying degrees, is that miscommunication sparked a rumor, which led to cell-phone conversations that were overheard, which propagated the rumor, that these guys had made it (or something like that). If you drop by, you will see widespread complicity by recipients of the wire stories, who to be fair wouldn't have been able to ferret out reasons for skepticism from the stories as they arrived over the wires - because those stories contained no attribution for the key statement. That should have been a signal, of course, of trouble.

The mistakes of media are no tragedy here, but are silly and embarassing. One can only hope the hand wringing about the erroneous report isn't louder than the hand wringing about the 12 miners who never made it home.

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