Damaging gaps in a mine story

The lead story in last Sunday’s Post offered a revealing look at ties between the coal mining industry and federal officials who regulate it. The Post reported that more than 200 former congressional staffers, lawmakers and federal regulators have become coal lobbyists, consultants or top executives. At the same time, many industry officials have moved into government jobs overseeing mining.

The story said some experts believe the revolving door has led to a regulatory system “tilted toward coal company interests” and a “flawed” enforcement regimen that jeopardizes mine safety.

The story was timely, coming within weeks of the blast in West Virginia that killed 29 workers at the Upper Big Branch mine, operated by Massey Energy. The Post analysis put a spotlight on the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which is supposed to enforce safety standards.

But midway through was a single paragraph that prompted an angry complaint. It labeled Massey and Murray Energy Corp. as “the two U.S. mining companies with the worst safety records. Their mines have been the sites of at least three accidents in the past decade, claiming 40 lives. The two companies together have more than 5,700 pending safety violations.”

On Tuesday, Murray Energy sent a forceful letter to The Post threatening legal action over the story’s “false statements.” Senior Vice President Michael O. McKown wrote it is “completely untrue” that his company has one of the two worst safety records. He added that it’s “deceptive to judge or compare relative safety of coal mines based on a single figure” of 5,700 citations. And he argued it’s “misleading, unfair and malicious” to lump Murray and Massey together and then “deceitfully assert” that the two companies have accounted for 40 mining deaths.

McKown’s letter points to the risks of applying broad labels and raises questions about false equivalencies. But a more fundamental problem is that The Post violated a basic tenet of journalism by not contacting Murray for comment. The lapse is troubling. It’s simply unfair to say a company is “worst” without offering it the opportunity to respond.

Beyond that, Post readers were shortchanged by assertions that lacked context and specificity even though they may prove to be technically accurate. Assessing coal mine safety is complex. Whether Murray is among the “worst” likely turns on how you measure it. While the volume of safety citations is important, experts caution that they vary widely from minor to serious.

“Some violations are more like traffic tickets,” said West Virginia University law professor Patrick C. McGinley, a mine safety expert. While aggregate numbers of citations can be important, he said a “better comparison is among the more serious violations.”

“You have to take a good look at what those citations are for,” said Ellen Smith, owner and managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, a widely read independent newsletter. She said they range from minor “housekeeping violations” for improper paperwork to serious citations for potentially life-threatening problems such as insufficient ventilation.

A more meaningful Post analysis of MSHA citations might have evaluated fines that have been imposed against companies for safety violations. Or it might have focused on accident rates at individual mines or federal inspection “orders” to immediately remove miners facing life-threatening safety risks.

Rather than combining accident and death rates, it would have been better to separate them so readers could judge which company was most responsible. McKown said that because The Post’s methodology for compiling the citations was not explained in the story, and because no reporters called for comment, company officials were unable to evaluate the accuracy of the 5,700 figure. The same is true for the death totals, he said.

Deputy national editor Barbara Vobejda, who edited the story, acknowledged some of the problems. “We should have included the basis for our characterization of Murray’s safety record as one of the worst in the country,” she said, “and we should have called Murray officials to seek their comment.”

A clarification published Saturday said the story should have described Murray as being “among” those with the worst records, according to MSHA data. It said MSHA records of pending citations show Murray with 1,963 and Massey with 3,751. It also said the citations are being contested by the companies, which should have been noted in the original story. And of the 40 deaths, the clarification said, MSHA records show nine occurred at Murray mines. (McKown says it’s only seven.)

That’s helpful detail. Its absence last Sunday damaged an otherwise informative story.

This column was originally published in The Washington Post on April 25, 2010.

Comments are closed.