Journos, coal folks hash out communication, trust issues

April 2006

Journalists, coal-company officials and business associates of the coal industry -- more than a dozen in each category -- gathered in the booming coal town of Pikeville, Ky., on April 17, 2006, to talk about the difficulties they have with each other and try to forge a more mutually beneficial relationship.

The Coal-Media Roundtable was sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Appalachian News-Express, the Pikeville newspaper. News-Express Publisher Marty Backus, who suggested the roundtable, and Institute Director Al Cross called the meeting a success, and said it might be repeated, as often as annually.

"For years, the relationship between the coal industry and the media has been rocky at best," Neil Middleton, news anchor for WYMT-TV in Hazard, said in introducing the station's report on the meeting. Middleton and co-anchor Danielle Morgan attended the roundtable. "A journalist's job is to provide information for the public. A coal miner's job is to provide energy for the nation, but when those paths cross, it isn't always a pretty meeting," Morgan told viewers, introducing a video clip of her interview with Mike Browning, editor of The Logan Banner in West Virginia.

"When we called to get information on one disaster, we were hung up on six times," Browning said, expanding on an episode he had related at the roundtable. Coal executives said that happens, and calls aren't returned to certain journalists, because of inaccurate or biased reporting. "When you give them a statement, it will be edited for content, taken out of context," said Paul Matney of TECO Energy, which mines in southeastern Kentucky.

Cross urged coal companies to give every journalist at least one break, and discuss problems they have with stories, not cut off communication. He also urged reporters to do stories about the booming coal business, to get to know people in the industry and develop sources in a less or non-adversarial climate.

The most experienced coal reporter at the table, Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette, said information about disasters should come from government officials, who have control over disaster sites and are paid to issue information to the public -- unlike most coal companies, which lack a spokesperson and are usually preoccupied by trying to rescue miners and not disposed to deal with reporters.

Ward told industry representatives that the best argument they have to make against those who would severely limit their activities, such as mountaintop-removal mining, is their essential role in providing electric power for the nation. Participants on all sides said they knew people who do not realize that most electricity comes from coal and most coal is used to make steam used to generate electricity.

Ward also told the coal folks, "My job is not to tell your story," or write articles that artificially balance six paragraphs adverse to the industry with six favorable to it. He said the industry has naturally come under more media scrutiny since the Sago Mine disaster, in which 12 miners died and there was a false report that they had survived. "The media and the coal industry are in a whole new world after Sago," he said.

The day ended with better feelings on both sides. "I think this is a good first step," said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. He called for more such meetings, and tours of mines by journalists. Just sitting around the same table and talking helps, said David Gooch, executive director of Pikeville-based Coal Operators and Associates. "It's a matter of trust," he told the roundtable. "Trust comes from association." To see WYMT's full report, click here, then click on the story in the Video list.

The roundtable was an outgrowth of "Covering Coal," an Institute conference that was held in November at the Graduate College of Marshall University in South Charleston, W. Va., and attended by Backus and other journalists. For a report on that conference, click here.

Permission to reprint items from The Rural Blog is hereby granted, on the condition that clear credit is given to the original source of the material. If the blog provides information for a story, please let us know by sending an e-mail to al.cross@uky.edu.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues helps non-metropolitan media define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary on local issues and on broader issues that have local impact. Its initial focus area is Central Appalachia, but as an arm of the University of Kentucky it has a statewide mission, and it has national scope. It has academic collaborators at Appalachian State University, East Tennessee State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Georgia College and State University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Marshall University, Middle Tennessee State University, Ohio University, Southeast Missouri State University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Washington and Lee University, West Virginia University and the Knight Community Journalism Fellows Program at the University of Alabama. It is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the University of Kentucky, with additional financial support from the Ford Foundation. To get notices of Rural Blog postings and other Institute news, click here.

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