Mine disaster isn't story new media cover well

The Baltimore Sun

Among the places cyberspace can't reach: into a coal mine.

The real-life drama near Huntington, Utah, where six miners are trapped underground and presumed dead, and where three of their fellow miners died in a rescue attempt, has been all but immune from the blogging and new media that often blanket modern tragedies.

The parameters of the story lend themselves to what the new media typically do best - following news in hard-to-reach places in real time around the clock.

But the chronicle of the accident that began early Aug. 6 seems as riven with uncertainty as the reports of epic mine disasters of the past. Among them: the 1968 explosion beneath the coal fields of Farmington, W.Va., which has been called the first mining accident of the television age, and the Sago, W.Va., accident last year when late-night confusion led many morning newspaper headlines to incorrectly trumpet the news that most of the trapped miners had survived.

The emotional EKG of the accident at Crandall Canyon - collapse reported, miners' condition unknown, their location uncertain, the rescue effort impassioned but imprecise, families in anguish - seems as timeless and immutable as the mining communities themselves.

No spontaneous cell-phone videos are being captured in a mine, or at least none make their way out without the miners. Even the cylindrical camera lowered through a borehole couldn't capture images from more than 15 feet due to limited light. The modern miracle of wireless communication is meaningless within sedimentary rock.

The bulk of blog posts with news about the rescue operation have come from traditional media such as the Salt Lake Tribune and CNN. Individual blog posters have often focused on political issues far from the rescue scene.

A Virginia blogger used it as an occasion to skewer the "liberal media," above a photograph of a Utah child and a banner that read "God Bless Our Miners:" "They say there are no atheist in the trenches. It seems the only time the media deems fit to show average American's faith is in the face of tragedy. It's to bad, because I think many Americans rely on their faith for a lot more than the low moments in life."

While bloggers couldn't add much to the reporting of the rescue effort, they were effective at exploring the regulatory and technological issues confronting mine operations in Utah and elsewhere. The belligerent history of mine operator Robert E. Murray, described as flamboyant and camera-hogging, was a frequent topic.

The Mine Safety and Health AdMinistration's Web site offered an instructive Q&A; about the accident (http:--www.msha.gov/Genwal/CrandallCanyon.asp) and KUTV video images from inside the Crandall Canyon mine revealing dripping water, but no signs of life, were accessible on YouTube (http:--you- tube.com/watch?v=RciA_IxnYJc).

Whatever the limitations of new media in old mines, the ending of this coal field tragedy is likely to mimic dozens that have preceded it, as in this recounting in the Wheeling News-Register of the April 28, 1924, explosion that killed 119 in Benwood, W.Va.: "By Wednesday, May 7, the burials were under way and the story had dropped off the front pages of the newspapers."


Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.

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