This will forever haunt me

My post last week reminded me of this incident that happened 4 years ago.

There is a reason I can hardly bear to look at this photo:

Crystina Neeling and Darlene Groves, right, celebrate at Sago Baptist Church Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2006 in Tallmansville, W. Va. after hearing the report indicating the miners are alive. Groves is the sister-in-law of trapped miner Jerry Groves and Neeling is his niece. (Kiichiro Sato - AP)

Crystina Neeling and Darlene Groves, right, celebrate at Sago Baptist Church Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2006 in Tallmansville, W. Va. after hearing the report indicating the miners are alive. Groves is the sister-in-law of trapped miner Jerry Groves and Neeling is his niece. (Kiichiro Sato - AP)

I wrote the text below in February of 2006, and a version of it was published in the newspaper that I worked for at the time. Four years later, and I still can’t read it without tearing up, thinking about the families that went through this tragedy.

A day at the newspaper

When you design newspaper pages for a living, you tend to become really attached to the stories that grace your pages. I have been a newspaper designer for 5 years. During that time, the news has become so much of a part of me. You can mention a story that happened years ago, and I could tell you a) if I was working the day the story broke and b) if I did the page on which the story appeared.
  
If a breaking news story happens and I’m not at work, I feel cheated. I’m missing out on being a small part of history, of putting together a visual story so that people in Rock Hill, S.C., can know the news and see the emotion involved.
  
I become especially attached to stories of tragedy — and stories of miracles, for that matter. Tuesday night, I was designing The Herald’s front page for Wednesday editions. My centerpiece story (the one that goes with the biggest piece of art for the page) was about the coal miners that were trapped in West Virginia. As the night went on, it didn’t look good. At one point, they found one of the miners’ bodies. I carefully chose a photo of a woman sobbing into the arms of another miner’s family member. I found it very appropriate to convey how these families must feel. The photo was emotional and telling.
  
Our deadline is midnight. We send our pages about 20 minutes before deadline or earlier, because it takes a while to be printed and made into plates for the press.

After sending the pages, The Associated Press moved an advisory with wonderful news — 12 of the miners were alive! It was a miracle. I thought to myself, “This is why my job is important.” I get to be the one to share this wonderful news with all of our readers.
  
After that it was a hustle to make what is called a “roll change.” The press has 3 large rolls of paper that make up our newspaper run. At the time they change the paper roll, they can also change any plates that are needed — which is where I come in. If I can remake the page in time for the first roll change, 2/3 of our readers will have the most up-to-date news. All the papers are printed by 3:30 a.m.
  
At 12:45, the AP moved a story saying all the family members and the governor had confirmed they were told the miners were alive.
  
Along with that story, they moved a very emotional photo of two female family members rejoicing that their loved ones had made it through. I found the first photo I had chosen to be inappropriate for the story at this point, and this second shot [the one shown at top] really captured the moment. I changed the photo, changed the headline: ‘They’re alive!’ and changed the story.

Another page designer, Jason, stayed around to help me choose the photo and proof the page. I chatted with Althea in composing and Clarence in the pressroom about how great it was that we were able to get the story in. We wondered how many other newspapers were able to get it in. I left work at 3 a.m. (about 2 hours after I normally leave) feeling really great about the story. The world does have miracles!
  
I got home at 3:45 and grabbed the competition out of my paperbox. “Hmm, The Observer got the story in too,” I thought as I read their headline: “Miners’ families cry: They’re alive.” Then I stumbled into bed. Little did I know at 3:03, AP had moved another advisory stating that the information was incorrect, that in fact, 12 of the miners were actually dead, and only one was alive.
  
At 10 a.m., Jeff called me on his way to work and left me a message that he’d heard on NPR that the report about the miners being alive was false. When I got the message, my first thought was “those poor families.” I thought of the two women celebrating in the photo, and my eyes teared up thinking about how tragically their story had changed. My second thought was “how did I miss this?” I worried that somehow the advisory had moved when I was still at work, and somehow I had not seen it.
  
After a quick glance online and on TV, I saw that we’d all missed it. Most of the newspapers had the incorrect information.  It seems like most of the East Coast papers had it wrong, and most of the West Coast papers got it right. This makes sense as the 3 a.m. advisory would have been midnight their time — right at deadline. 
   
My editor in chief, Terry Plumb, wrote a blog on the issue. Check it out at [link has been removed by my former employer.]  
 
My first thought today is for those poor families who had false hope. What we designers do at the newspaper is an art — we have a story that we must visually make into something that conveys the tone of that story. We do that by choosing art, writing headlines that we hope compel the reader to read that story. In doing this, sometimes, in our minds, we become a part of that story. What happened to these miners and their families will be something that I will always feel a small part of. The fact that we were wrong — that the families heard wrong — is so sad.
  
I share all this with you because it’s been one of the most interesting situations I’ve encountered since I have begun working at The Herald. It’s an example of what can happen when you have a constantly updating story, a deadline and people who want to believe in a miracle. The country is full of people who are looking to blame ‘the liberal media’ for anything and everything. I’m not looking to defend what happened or the media as a whole, but I do want to say that the media is made up of individuals who work hard to bring these wonderful and tragic stories to you, and although I can speak only for myself and my coworkers, there is no political agenda attached to these individuals. We’re in this business because we want to share the stories that make up the world we all live in. I wanted to share this story with you so that you have a little piece of what goes on in our world at the newspaper.

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