What Does America Think?
According to the Flashpoints USA nationwide survey, 82% of people feel that news organizations tend to overdo sensational stories and never know when to quit on stories that bring them good ratings.
Blurring the Lines
Though there is much criticism of the phenomenon of "media frenzy", the line between information and entertainment seems to be increasingly blurred. In recent years, a proliferation of news sources — the Internet, cable programming — has created a 24-hour news cycle which gives us stories that consume the airwaves until the next big event comes along.
And as media outlets continue to feel pressure to create a synergy between their news and entertainment divisions, the public is finding it harder to discern where entertainment ends and real news begins.
"We are seeing an information overload today," says TV Guide columnist Max Robins. "There are plenty of news sources out there. The question is how many people are tuning in to these multiple sources. There is a lot of infotainment out there as well. One would wish more time and energy given to something more important than the latest media scandal."
Media critic Ed Bark agrees, "There are no real investigative stories anymore. It is far easier to put a camera in Eagle, Colorado and join the media swarm. If you don't cover the story, someone else will."
In the summer of 2002, one part of the Pennsylvania countryside became quite familiar to news watchers nationwide and its residents found out firsthand what it's like to be caught up in a media frenzy.
On July 24, nine men working the night shift at Quecreek Mine in Somerset County, Pennsylvania drilled into an old abandoned mine, causing more than 50 million gallons of water to rush in and trapping the men in an air pocket about 240 feet below the surface.
The story immediately captured the country's attention as every major media outlet rushed to the scene. For days, Americans watched and waited through the rescue efforts, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. Then, 77 hours later, nine dazed, wet, soot-stained men were hoisted out of the mine and into the media spotlight. The nation was desperate for good news. The press was looking for heroes — and in the miners and their rescuers, they found them.
The media frenzy which followed engulfed all concerned and with it came interviews, a made-for-TV movie, a best-selling book, a visit from President Bush. Eventually the fervor subsided, but the miners' story didn't end just because the press left town. Being the center of the media circus proved overwhelming for many of these involved.
The year that followed was tumultuous one, filled with investigations, lawsuits, finger-pointing and in the end tragedy, when one day in June Robert Long — the rescuer the news media singled out as "the man behind the miracle" — stood outside his house, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Bob Long, 37, was the surveyor who had to decide where to drill the rescue holes — one to pipe in breathable air, one to lift the trapped miners out. His was a high-stakes call, in which the slightest miscalculation could have meant disaster.
For CNN and other media outlets, the father of three became the hero rescuer, one face to represent the nearly 300 people who helped haul the miners to safety.
When Disney bought the TV and book rights to the miner's story, they offered Long $150,000 to be the voice of the rescuers, the same amount each miner received. That fact irritated some of the Quecreek's survivors, who felt Long was trying to cash in on their story — accusations and bitter feelings followed. Long's exact motivation for taking his own life will never be known. But his story is a reminder of what can happen when a person's life suddenly becomes national news.
A Normal Life
Though the rescued miners struggle to return to normalcy, it is clear that their lives have changed for good. "It was a constant battle with [the press]," says John Unger, one of the rescued and a coal miner for 28 years before the accident. "I'd give everything back if my life would go back the way it was but I know that's not going to happen. Just normal life like it was before. Nobody knew us. You go to work every day and that kind of thing." But in the end, Unger says, "I'm just glad to be here every day. God gave us a second chance and even the bad days are good."
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