The Minimal Coverage of Corporate Safety Crimes

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If I told you that there was a pending criminal case involving an alleged conspiracy that led to the deaths of 29 people, you’d think it would be front page news, right?

Well, there is such a case. But it’s gotten barely any coverage at all.

On April 5, 2010, an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine owned by Massey Energy killed 29 workers. This disaster was widely covered at the time, by local media, national journalists and the international press.

But, as often happens, soon after the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine, articles on it were pushed off the front page—that’s if the media wrote about it at all.

In the months and years following the incident, occasional articles would appear when key events in the subsequent investigation occurred.

For example, when an independent team led by J. Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief, released its report on the disaster on May 19, 2011, many media outlets covered the event.

Coverage spiked again when Alpha Natural Resources, which had bought Massey after the explosion, agreed to settle the mine safety violations filed against Massey by paying a record $209 million in fines and compensation to two injured miners and the families of the deceased miners.

For most workplace safety incidents—even ones with multiple fatalities—the process would’ve ended with this settlement. But Massey’s conduct was so egregious that many, including the United Mine Workers of America, felt that criminal charges were warranted.

For example, the McAteer report concluded that the blast could have been prevented if Massey had observed minimal safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine.

And the New York Times reported that, according to federal investigators, Massey misled government inspectors by keeping accounts of hazardous conditions out of official record books where inspectors would see them. It only recorded safety problems and efforts to fix them in a separate, internal set of books.

As a result, federal prosecutors charged Gary May, a mine superintendent, with conspiracy to hide the safety violations that ultimately led to the explosion. On March 29, 2012, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and is cooperating with the authorities.

It’s expected that prosecutors will now pursue criminal charges against other individuals in the company, possibly even former Massey CEO Don Blankenship.

The criminal case hasn’t gotten the amount of media coverage you’d expect for a crime involving this number of victims and a conspiracy.

Although it has been covered by the media in West Virginia where the mine is located and in workplace safety publications, the general press has largely ignored it or provided only minimal coverage.

For instance, although the explosion itself may have been front page news, coverage of May’s guilty plea was typically a paragraph or two buried in the paper.

In contrast, if someone, say, gunned down 29 people in a mall or blew up 29 people in an act of terrorism, there would be tons of press surrounding both the crime itself and the progress of the resulting criminal charges.

Just look at the Trayvon Martin case. The media has covered every step of the case, from Martin’s shooting on Feb. 26, 2012 to the resulting protests to the arrest of George Zimmerman.

Even Zimmerman’s bail hearing was front page news.

But corporate crimes, even the ones involving the deaths of workers, don’t seem to be treated like “real” crimes.

Workplace safety incidents, such as the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, are generally handled in regulatory processes and typically result in fines. Criminal charges are rare.

So when criminal charges were filed in the Upper Big Branch case, it should have raised some eyebrows—and it should have been big news.

Given the current climate of anger and resentment toward Wall Street and big business, you’d think the public would rally against an employer believed to have wantonly endangered its workforce to benefit the bottom line.

Maybe the public would have protested—if they were more aware of Massey’s conduct.

After all, according to the McAteer report,The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris. A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coal fields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk taking.”

I can’t help but wonder if extensive press coverage of this mining tragedy and the corporate negligence that led to it would have resulted in some sort of public uproar, maybe even pressure on the government to improve its enforcement of mine safety regulations.

The sad fact is that there’s too much crime for crime reporters to cover everything. I understand and appreciate that they and their editors must prioritize. And corporate crimes often aren’t very “sexy” stories—and so get underreported.

But the Upper Big Branch mine disaster and similar tragedies aren’t paper crimes that resulted only in financial harm—29 men died. And they deserve justice—and to be remembered—as much as any crime victim.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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