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Maisel Defends Sago Disaster Coverage


Bad timing and remote locations, rather than media sloppiness, were the main factors that contributed to initially erroneous press reports about the Sago, W.Va., mine disaster that killed 12, according to Todd Maisel, a staff photographer for the New York Daily News.

Hundreds of journalists from around the country traveled to Sago to document the rescue attempts, and photographs of the waiting families dominated almost every front page. On the NPPA website, Maisel, who also is Region 2 associate director for the National Press Photographers Association, described his experiences and those of other journalists and photographers.

"This was obviously not the work of gullible media, but of journalists pushed to their limits and everyone wanting the miners to be alive," Maisel wrote, adding that it is rare for unverified facts in a big story to cause newspapers across the country to print inaccurate information.

The real question, according to Maisel, is whether there was anything that photographers could have done to prevent the mistake in the papers. "One can only report and photograph what happens," he wrote.

The same forbidding weather that was credited as a likely cause of the mine explosion also made the jobs of the media more difficult, according to Maisel. Heavy thunderstorms created tense drives for those sent to cover the scene. When they arrived, they faced bone-chilling dampness, slogging mud, poor visibility and bad lighting.

After nearly two days, photographers were on hand to capture the jubilation of the waiting families when they were told that their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers had been delivered safely from the mine. The news came just before final deadline for many of the publications represented at the scene, and the media scrambled to share the joy and relief of the men's families.

When those reports were proven false, the photographers and journalists suddenly found that they were no longer welcome. "The inaccurate report about the miners added to the already difficult task of photographing the families of these men in this sleepy, deeply private Appalachian community," Maisel wrote. "It made a draining story more stressful and harkened back to the days of 9/11, when families awaited the rescue and then recovery of their family and friends."

Prior to that moment, Maisel said, many family members who did not mind the camera lights had shared their thoughts and feelings with the media. "So the pressure mounted for any positive info, perhaps fueling the chain of events that led unidentified rescuers to leak word that the miners were alive," he wrote.

Maisel's entire report is available at sago.html.