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. 








Yet
reporting only around major mining accidents comes at a cost of
proportionality. First, the mining industry likes to point out the
declining fatality rate in mining—22 in 2005 compared to 133
in 1980 and more than 1,000 annually in years before the 1940s.
This is true. However, most accidental mining deaths come one at
a time. Last year’s 22 deaths, for example, came in 20 separate
accidents in Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Okla- homa, Pennsylvania,
West Virginia, and Wyoming. There was no national television news
coverage of any of these accidents or the wide variety of deadly
safety problems involved. 


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.