August 13, 2007

Mine Collapse is Big News But Doesn’t Top the Campaign

PEJ News Coverage Index August 5 - 10, 2007

The first reports became public at roughly 10 a.m. Monday August 6. An underground shaft at the Crandall Canyon coal mine in Huntington, Utah had collapsed early that morning, trapping six miners 1,500 feet below ground.

By afternoon, all three cable news channels were live with continuing reports and special graphics signaling breaking news. Shortly before 2:30 p.m., over a “Fox Alert” logo, anchor Jane Skinner reported: “We’re continuing to watch a story out of Utah – six coal miners are trapped and a rescue effort is well underway there. A coal mine caved-in. There was an early morning earthquake in this area, so the question is did that earthquake cause this cave-in?”

On MSNBC, “coal mining expert” Jeff Goodell was explaining that the rescue effort was going to be “a slow and methodical operation….These hours right now are the most critical…”

At the dinner hour, all the three broadcast networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—led with the story. “The earth just seemed to swallow up six miners today,” ABC’s Charles Gibson began his newscast. “There was a Utah coal mine cave-in so powerful it registered on the Richter scale.”

That evening, cable talk focused in.

By the end of the week, the mine collapse had emerged as a major news story that had two familiar narrative elements. One, tracking the rescue efforts, traced an arc of dimming optimism. The other, over responsibility, was a struggle among the players in the drama to shape the media’s storyline.

In this case, that battle was a subtext to the rescue effort: who or what was to blame for the collapse.

Overall, the mine collapse filled 13% of the newshole in the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s weekly News Coverage Index from Sunday August 5 through Friday August 10. Even with all that, it was still the second-biggest story of the week.

The top story, once again, was the presidential campaign still many months away. The race for the White House made up 16% of PEJ’s News Index, which measures the space in newspapers and online sites, and airtime on TV and radio taken up by each story.

The week in the campaign was driven by multiple events. There were three debates along with the run up to the Republican Iowa straw polls, one of the signature events of the early campaign season. Together, they were enough to make this the biggest week of the campaign so far this year in terms of press coverage.

By comparison, while the plight of the trapped miners was a major story, it did not rise to the level of a dominant one. It received just slightly more than half the coverage in PEJ’s Index that the Minnesota bridge collapse did the week before, which emerged as one of the biggest stories of the year.

A few other stories also vied for attention last week as well. The Minneapolis Bridge collapse continued to be a running story for the second week (6%), as rescue efforts for victims’ bodies continued and more information was uncovered about potential structural faults in the design of the bridge. That made it the third-biggest story of the week. Events on the ground in Iraq had a relatively quiet week (5% of the newshole). The economy and falling stock prices each filled 3% of the newshole, which means that together they would have only ranked fourth. The achievement and controversy surrounding San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron’s home run record also filled 3%.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See a List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering or not covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)

The confusion about the cause of the mine accident added to the complexity of the story. At 2 a.m. Mountain Time on Monday, the University of Utah seismic stations reported an earthquake of 3.9-magnitude. About an hour later, the collapse at the mine was reported to safety regulators by the company, Murray Energy Corporation.

By the afternoon, University of Utah researchers believed that the mine collapse caused the seismic activity, not the other way around. This became a point of contention, especially for the mine’s owner, Bob Murray, who would emerge as major actor in the story and who maintained throughout that the earthquake caused the incident.

By Monday night, the networks focused some of their reporting on the process called “retreat mining,” a controversial method by which the roof is held up by pillars of coal, which are then pulled out as miners retreat. Tony Oppegard, a former mine safety official for Kentucky and the federal government, told the Associated Press that evening, this is "the most dangerous type of mining there is." In the battle over framing the story, mine owner Murray would argue that the term “retreat mining” itself was an inflammatory one coined by union organizers and told reporters it should be “taken out of your vocabulary.”

As Americans woke up Tuesday, the three network morning shows were focused on the families and the surrounding communities. A piece on NBC’s Today Show featured Michelle Anderson, a coal miner’s daughter, in tears: “We pray all day long. We pray that they find them. And find them alive.” Added coal miner Cody Potter: “I tell you all the community comes real close, comes back together and they stick together.”

By now, mine owner Murray was a major voice in many press accounts. Media savvy and well spoken, he argued that only an earthquake could account for the collapse.

During a press conference Tuesday afternoon, replayed often on cable, Murray pointed at a blueprint map of the mine and showed where the miners were trapped (1,500 feet below ground), and where the U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake’s center was (5 miles below ground). There is no way, Murray contended, that the mine collapse could have caused something so far below it.

As the week went on, Murray became the primary spokesman for the progress of the rescue effort, which gave more prominence to his point of view about causes.

That put him in opposition to a series of geological experts who were less visible. Walter Arabasz, the director of the University of Utah Seismograph Stations, appeared Tuesday evening on Anderson Cooper 360 to dispute Murray’s claims. Kim McCarter, chair of the University of Utah mining department, followed that interview and contended that the preponderance of evidence suggests that the mine collapse caused the disturbance.

By Wednesday, the timetable for the rescue became the story. There were reports that the drilling could take two or more days to reach the miners.

On CNN’s Situation Room, guest host Carol Costello interviewed Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. and noted, “You don’t even know if that hole (being drilled) is going to be in the right place.” Huntsman, Jr. agreed and added that due to the “unpredictabilites of Mother Nature” the rescuers had lost much of the progress they had made the previous days in drilling into the mine.

By Thursday, the press began to have more questions about safety violations and this particular mine. Meredith Vieira of the Today show asked Murray, “Since January of 2004 it’s been cited 325 times by the federal government for violations, more than 100 of those considered potential dangers to the miners…How can you be so sure that this accident isn’t the result of a problem with the mine itself?”

He had only owned the mine for about a year, Murray answered, and he said his track record in owning mines for more than 19 years is admirable.

The media now also had more information about the miners themselves and profiles of the trapped men and their families were becoming a staple. Fox News Live listed the names of the trapped men including Don Erickson who is called a “serious-minded perfectionist” by his friends and Brandon Phillips who had lost an uncle in a mine fire 20 years ago.

Mid-day Friday, rescuers managed to bore a 2.5 inch drill into the cavity where it was believed the miners might be. A microphone was dropped into where the miners were expected but no sounds were heard.

Then came reports of the oxygen levels. In the mine cavity where the drill penetrated, the oxygen level averaged 7.5 percent, not enough to sustain life for very long. But the word came from Richard Stickler, head of the Mine and Safety Administration, that oxygen levels could vary widely in mines, and by evening a second larger drill was expected to reach the miners soon.

By Sunday, August 12, rescuers managed to get a camera into the space, but there were no signs of people. In the coverage, hopes were clearly fading.

The New York Times reported that “when rescue workers, seeking silence, turned off all their machines and tapped three times on a pipe leading to the mine space, they waited in vain for a response from below.” Michael Glasson, a geologist for the mine company, described the moment as “heartbreaking,” but the rescuers would continue on their search until they knew the fate of the miners for certain.

 

Paul Hitlin, Mahvish Khan and Tom Rosenstiel of PEJ