Thursday, January 05, 2006

Who Killed the West Virginia Twelve?

Much blog discussion of news coverage on the yesterday's mining deaths in West Virginia has turned on the mistaken newspaper headlines and mistaken reports of survivors. I would like to push the discussion away from the pervasive and trivializing human interest frame and toward aspects of these people's deaths that are relevant to being an informed citizen in a capitalist democracy and preventing similar deaths in the future.

As the defenders of the current regime love to point out, why try to put the media in charge of policy issues when we have elected officials carrying responsibility for those policy areas? Surely part of the news on this story is whether or not the officials we have elected, and the people our elected officials have (often dubiously) appointed, have been doing the job they were elected to do.

How many major American papers reported the story of coal mining safety regulation today as context or even potentially direct cause of the deaths? Could responsible journalism actually avoid raising the issue of what caused the deaths when they may very well have been entirely preventable?

NY Times: Company Owner Says Cost-cutting Didn't Lead to Mine Explosion

Wa Po: Mine Safety.

Q and A on general conditions of coal mining with no specific information on the company, mine, and administration in question.

Chicago Tribune: Nothing concerning the mining fatality story on the website that I can find.

L.A. Times: Ill-fated Miners Fought to Survive After Explosion

Discusses forthcoming government investigations of the issue.

Democracy Now!:

Were today's deaths of the 12 coal miners preventable?

Last year, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration filed 200 alleged violations against the Sago mine. 46 citations were issued in the past three months - 18 of them were considered "serious and substantial...Sago mine was forced to suspend operations 16 times in 2005 after failing to comply with safety rules. The violations found at Sago included mine roofs that collapsed without warning, faulty tunnel supports and a dangerous build-up of flammable coal dust. But the fines that the company were required to pay were extremely low, most of them $250 or $60 dollars. Government documents also show a high rate of accidents at Sago. 42 workers and contractors have been injured in accidents since 2000 and the average number of working days lost because of accidents in the past five years was nearly double the national average for underground coal mines.

What do we think of these respective treatments as examples of news judgment and editorial decision-making?

The standard human interest approach (12 Miners Die in Accident, How Sad) actively erases obvious and newsworthy issues we can actually do something about as a democratic society.

Alternative, non-human interest directed news questions we could ask about the mining deaths last night and today include:

How seriously has the US coal mining industry been taking safety issues and how has government oversight under the Bush administration been performing in upholding previously designed strategies that have been proven successful in the past for preventing such deaths? Were the companies and the Bush admininistration doing everything they could, everything they reasonably should have, or not? Were private corporations recklessly endangering lives or not? Were elected officials charged with supervising working conditions doing their job or not? Are the laws that define their job adequate or not?

This issue calls for more reporting but so far it looks like we have at least three basic narrative options newspapers could choose to go with:

Possible narrative number one: not only has the coal mining industry and the company in question not done everything it could, or even what it could be reasonably expected to do, it was probably an active cause of the deaths. The company was cited for dozens of safety violations that they never bothered to fix over a period of years. If their negligence is proven to be a direct cause of the miners' deaths, a corporation that kills people should be held accountable. How many newspapers are asking AND REPORTING ON this question? The corruption of the coal mining industry in itself is a failing of contemporary American morality that considers profits more important than lives.

Possible narrative number two: Some enforcement of safety regulations on coal mining has continued under the Bush administration, but the regulations as they stand now are nowhere near adequate. We need new and better laws that make worker safety a higher priority.

Possible narrative number three:
Under the Bush administration, not only have state regulators not done everything they could, or everything they could reasonably be expected to do to prevent such disasters, they have repeatedly reduced funding for inspections, actively obstructed legally required citations and working condition improvements, and actively persecuted people trying to force them to take coal mining safety inspection responsibilities seriously. After the responsibility of the coal mining corporation that has blood on its hands for the deaths their active negligence over a period of years made more likely than not, the responsiblity of the officials we elected to oversee this area of working life actively obstructed enforcing safety protocols that might well have avoided today's deaths. Voters will need to know how actively the Bush administration has obstructed enforcement of the laws it is obligated to enforce and uphold so they can make an informed decision in 1996 and 1998.

(Of course it is possible many people voted for the Bush administration precisely so they would gut and obstruct labor safety enforcement. It is even possible that any such action that didn't bother to change the laws they are legally required to enforce under current law would be an impeachable offense. That would be a different post and a somewhat different topic.)