There’s an interesting debate going on on the econsultancy.com website about whether widespread coverage of the Chilean mining disaster was evidence of a ‘failure’ of journalism.

Apparently, 1300 journalists from around the world turned up to cover the operation that would rescue 33 miners who had been trapped underground for more than three months. This dense coverage prompted journalism professor Jeremy Littau to decry his industry’s ‘failure’, alleging that the media shamelessly chase feel-good stories in the fight for page views, whether the story is relevant to their audience or not. According to Littau the ‘reality TV’ Chilean story is an easy distraction from the bigger problems facing ordinary Americans, so the coverage was not warranted.

Blogger Patricio Robles hit back on econsultancy, writing:

‘The story of the miners captivated the world for good reason. Whether you saw in it a miracle, or a demonstration of man’s technical ingenuity, one thing that everyone saw: the absolute best of humanity and the human spirit.’

I think they’ve both got it wrong. While there’s undoubtedly a journalistic failure here, it’s not about saturation coverage or feel-good stories. It’s about why the mine collapsed, and whether there’s been a broader collapse in investigative journalism because it doesn’t draw large enough audiences to justify paying reporters. And while we’re at it, it’s also about the collapsing interest of a public too busy trying to figure out how their iPhones work to worry about whether supine governments are letting big industry dictate the regulatory framework in which they operate when workers’ lives are at risk.

Last April, 29 miners were killed in a disaster at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine, in the worst US mining disaster in 40 years. According to the BBC, Massey Energy, the mining company involved, had been fined close to $400,000 for ‘serious violations’ at the mine over the previous year. The company defended itself on the grounds that its safety record is ‘above the national average’, which begs a pretty obvious question.

In 2006, the Sago Mine disaster killed 12 men who worked for a company that had been cited for safety violations 208 times in the preceding year, including 31 ‘serious and substantial’ violations in a three month period alone. Now all those citations might lull you into congratulating regulators on doing their job. Instead, consider how it is that the mining companies got so cocky they were unfazed by this festering pile of rebukes, thumbing their noses at the regulators and their toothless rules which were meant to ensure the safety of mine workers.

Sure these stories ignited a flicker of interest in the issue of mining safety but company bosses were confident that if they could ride out the diatribes the story would become next week’s fish & chip paper. Turns out these guys have strong stomachs and good instincts, which makes me pretty sceptical about whether much will change in Chile either.

And that’s why Jeremy Littau’s got it wrong. The Chilean miners’ story has a lot to do with problems in America, including the chokehold of industry lobbyists on policy makers entrusted with creating systems that protect the lives of their constituents. It has to do with the US Supreme Court decision last January that called caps on campaign contributions from US corporations ‘unconstitutional’ because they violate companies’ right to free speech, and thereby guaranteed that sight lines on democracy’s playing field are regularly interrupted by big piles of money. And it has to do with the likes of David and Charles Koch, who are among America’s richest individuals, financing the Tea Party dupes who fight regulations that protect the air their own children breath while the billionaire brothers pocket the savings on environmental safeguards, all in the name of ‘liberty.’

As for Patricio Robles, of course we’re delighted that the miners were rescued. Who didn’t have a laugh at the guy whose mistress turned up while his wife stayed home? Who wasn’t amazed by the bullet-shaped capsule that brought the men to safety? And whose cranky heart didn’t warm to the miner whose newborn child had first seen sunlight while her father was stuck in a black hole more than 2000 feet underground?

The trouble with these feel-good snapshots isn’t that their subjects aren’t relevant to the lives of ordinary Americans. It’s that ‘miracles’ and the ‘triumph of the human spirit’ slip into the opiates category dangerously quickly, which makes it easy to forget that if you privilege profit at all costs occasionally the cost is human life. The true failure of journalism is its now-habitual participation in this cynical whitewash that protects vested interests while pretending to celebrate the lives of ordinary people.

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