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Christopher r. Martin
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Eleanor J. Bader
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The News Media and Big Coal
A s he stood wearing a parka in the cold January night air for live coverage of the unfolding Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, CNN’s Anderson Cooper reminded viewers that the Appalachian region mines a lot of coal, which fuels power plants supplying electricity to viewers around the country. (He could have added, more than half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from coal.)
Despite the secrecy shrouding Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force meetings, it’s no mystery that increased coal production has been one of the pillars of Bush-Cheney’s retrograde energy policy since 2001. Since the Administration’s new emphasis on big coal—whose executives are well represented in the list of Bush “pioneers” who raised more than $100,000 for his campaigns— Americans have read or heard shockingly little news about the dangerous working conditions of the nation’s 75,000 coal miners.
Shortly after 12 dead miners and a gravely injured survivor were pulled from the Sago mine, the New York Times in a January 5 editorial came close to admitting it had long ignored the question of coal mine safety, but used the collective “us” to cover its own specific shortcomings: “Just as Hurricane Katrina forced Americans to look at the face of lingering poverty and racism, this mining tragedy should focus us all on another forgotten, mistreated corner of society…. The dozen dead miners deserve to be memorialized with fresh scrutiny of the state of mine safety regulation and a resurrection of political leadership willing to look beyond Big Coal to the interests of those who risk their lives in the mines.” But, as in the Katrina disaster, working class people are “forgotten.”
The news media’s problem with mine safety is that it only covers the issue when there is a major accident. Since 2001, two events—the Sago tragedy and the 2002 Que- creek, Pennsylvania mine flood and rescue—have accounted for nearly all network and cable television news stories about the work of coal mining. Outside of these two accidents, cable and network television news have run a total of zero stories on the safety of coal production in the last five years.
Instead we get these infrequent, manic news events, which play out like a melodramatic miniseries and end with either a joyous rescue or tragic recovery. Television and cable news networks (as indexed by the Vanderbilt Television News Archive) did 49 national TV news reports on the 2002 Pennsylvania Quecreek Mine disaster and rescue, the story of 9 miners rescued after being trapped 3 days in a flooded mine 240 feet underground.
After Quecreek—a story that seemed like it came from Hollywood (and eventually was sold there)—television news waited two years until it had another “big story” about a group of trapped miners. From January 2, the day of the Sago accident, through the end of February, at least 123 network and cable news reports were filed. But these stories weren’t really about the horrible conditions of mining, rather they were more about the mythical drama of trapped people and whether they can be pulled back from death.
The news media has long had an insatiable appetite for these narratives. Witness the extraordinary media coverage of Baby Jessica in 1987. This story of a little girl rescued from a well in Midland, Texas after three days rates as one of the most closely followed news stories of the past three decades, according to the Pew Center’s News Interest Index. Previously, the ultimately failed attempts to rescue cave explorer Floyd Collins from a passage in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave system in 1925 was one of modern media’s first really big national news frenzies, as Robert K. Murray and Roger W. Brucker explain in their excellent 1983 book Trapped!
To the news media’s credit, there have been a few follow-up reports on mine safety emerging from the Sago coverage, including stories on the lax violation enforcement by the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA), whose top ranks are staffed by former coal industry officials. The best journalism has cut through the crosstalk to reveal the truth about federal regulators. For example, a Knight Ridder investigation of MSHA’s own data confirmed “a 43 percent reduction in proposed median major fines” under the Bush administration. Reporters stayed on the story and recrunched the data to the same results, to counter MSHA’s criticisms. USA Today independently analyzed MSHA records of the Sago mine from the past two years to find that federal inspectors routinely understated the number of workers at risk from safety violations at the mine, saving the owner, International Coal Group, and previous owner, Anker West Vir- ginia Mining Co., thousands of dollars in fines.
Second, there was a much bigger story that the news media repeatedly missed. By far the most deadly aspect of coal mining is the debilitating, chronic disease pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung. For years, the industry (as well as MSHA) ignored miners’ requests to reduce unsafe levels of coal dust. Although black lung disease is on the decline, more than 1,000 miners a year still die from it. There is no great dramatic event in these deaths, only the sad, slow decline of afflicted ex-miners, as their scarred lungs weaken and eventually suffocate them. Of the 582 major newspaper articles about the Sago mine indexed by Lexis- Nexis through the end of February, only 12 of them even mentioned the term “black lung.”
A five-part series by the Louisville Courier-Journal in April 1998 titled “Dust, Deception & Death” still stands as the best example of how to cover the dangers of mining without waiting for an accident to happen.
Reporters Ralph Dunlop and Gardiner Harris (ironically, now with the New York Times, but not on a beat that covers mining) revealed that mine companies regularly falsify dust level test results and workers—particularly in non- union mines (no surprise here: the Sago and Quecreek mines are non-union)—are expected to go along with the practice to keep their jobs. In the Courier-Journal ’s series the “accident” had to be uncovered. A year-long investigation that included a computer analysis of more than 7 million federal records and interviews with 255 miners revealed that more than 54,000 coal miners had died since federal limits on coal-mine dust went into effect in 1972.
Only one national television network—CBS—followed up on the Courier-Journal ’s series with a report of its own that year. Yet thousands more have died every year since then.
Ironically, coal dust is not only dangerous to breathe, but also a hazardous explosive. By shedding more light on the egregious enforcement of coal dust standards, journalists could not only bring public attention to the deadly air that miners breathe, but also to the conditions that make coal mine explosions and fires more likely in the first place.
Although the New York Times calls for “fresh scrutiny of the state of mine safety regulation,” given the history of the news media’s performance on this issue, we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting.
Christopher R. Martin is an associate professor of journalism at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and is the author of Framed! Labor and the Corporate Media (Cornell University Press, 2004). He writes regularly on labor issues.
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