BP's Gulf Oil Gusher Attracts Bewildering Amounts of Media Coverage. But Where's the Depth?

October 15, 2010

By ROBERT A. THOMAS

A boat penetrates the leading edge of the approaching oil in the northern Gulf of Mexico near Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands. Photo © Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times.

 

The quality of the coverage on the oil gusher depends on where you live and what you listen to, watch or read. New Orleans' The Times-Picayune, one of the resident newspapers, has been a treasure chest of stories from every angle imaginable. In contrast, New York journalist Dale Willman noted that The Times-Union had front-page coverage early in the catastrophe, and now has an occasional article buried deeply.

In large part, small media markets are getting most of their news about the gusher from TV and AP feeds.

The BP oil gusher led news coverage nine of the 15 weeks through August 1st, was second three times, and third three times (See Table 1on page 8 of the SEJournal PDF; members only until January 15, 2011).

Overall, the media performed admirably throughout the BP Deepwater Horizon gusher disaster. Local and regional newspapers served their audiences with intense and incisive coverage, using excellent communication tools. Local television was superb, deploying an array of reporters, including investigative teams, while national television stayed with the subject from its first gush. Their anchors and top reporters repeatedly visited the coast. Talk radio offered continuous coverage and a portal for citizens to report on their experiences and offer their concerns.

I do believe that the media's coverage of this disaster, following closely on the heels of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, has taken the U.S. media to a higher level of performance in communicating extraordinarily complex and difficult information to the local, national, and international audiences. This may be of special note since a large media segment, local and regional newspapers, had to perform despite smaller staffs and tighter budgets.

But the media's performance in the coverage of the Gulf calamity remains an unfinished story. The daily, breaking news story of a deepwater well that seemingly couldn't be stanched now holds a greater challenge: Depth.

An invasion of reporters

Taking a break to cool off, a BP contract worker lets the breeze fill his contamination suit as he cleans up a beach at Port Fourchon, Louisiana in late May. Hundreds of such contractors were hired after oil from the Deepwater Horizon mobile offshore drilling rig began washing up on beaches one month after it exploded. Photo © U.S. Coast Guard, by PO3 Patrick Kelley.

Local journalists were at the epicenter of the oil disaster; those who have worked the environment and associated beats (as in most emergencies, reporters from a variety of areas were brought to the coverage team and their talents improve public understanding) were well acquainted with run-of-the-mill oil and gas issues. For the current calamity, they were on the ground every day, developing stories that compare events associated with the oil dilemma and the past. They tended to not get involved in the hysteria associated with access denial, and had their editors and experienced colleagues helping them circumvent barriers set by BP and the Coast Guard. Many of the challenges discussed on the SEJ listserv were non-issues for locals.

Conversely, the nationals tended to either focus on larger elements of the saga or send reporters to cover their normal beats or specialties in the coastal zone. An excellent example is Ylan Mui, a native New Orleanian of Vietnamese descent, graduate of the journalism program at Loyola, and now with The Washington Post. Mui came to the coast on assignment to cover the impacts of the oiled Gulf on the largely fisheries-dependent Vietnamese population.

An early issue in the coverage was that reporters were calling the gusher a spill. Louisiana and the northern Gulf are no strangers to oil spills of various sizes. After the BP event, where the gusher raged for 87 days with no sign of the source drying up, a spill of a known quantity seemed almost comforting.

But as the importance of events became self-evident, everyone and every issue became infused with drama. The number and breadth of reporters soared. Reporters of every ilk descended on Venice. Rick Jervis, a reporter with USA Today, said, "Everyone expected Prince William Sound level impacts. They braced for an acute crisis and encountered an event whose visible symptoms came gradually and painfully." All had to decide how to cover, how long to stay, and their level of commitment. Most of the international cadre left in May, as did several large regional newspapers.

There were interesting logistical complications. The earliest arriving journalists found rooms readily available in the Venice, La. area. As BP took more and more rooms for their workers, there were no places for journalists to stay, causing many of them to add several hours per day for travel time to their congested schedules.

The first day President Obama arrived, 12 days after the tragedy, I flew over the oil slicks with Brazilian Globo TV, sat in the studios of WVUE-TV, and then drove to Venice where there was a veritable feeding frenzy of reporters hoping to interview the president. There was a camera crew every 100 yards doing standup, and the area outside where the president was being briefed had everyone from Al Jazeera to The Economist and The CBS Early Show. What started as a story of a tragic, life-taking explosion turned into a potpourri of in-depth stories of many creative angles, such as human impacts, the oil and gas industry, economic effects, the future of fishers and their trade, and more.

The stories
A subtle messaging trend was evident whereby editors make coverage decisions based on what their institution does well (economics, environment, oil and gas policy).

There were immediate comparisons to the Exxon Valdez and Prince William Sound, but astute journalists immediately reported that this calamity was different. The northern Gulf is not rocky seashore, the water is not cold, the crude is Louisiana Lite and not heavy crude, the oil is not leaking from a maximum load of 53 million gallons, and more. It soon became apparent that this type of catastrophe had never happened before, so there was a bevy of unknowns.

By day 100, more people were sharing ideas that the negative environmental impacts may not be as bad as forecasted. While many were predicting impending doom, some reputable groups (such as the Barataria-Terrebone National Estuary Program based in Thibodaux, La.) were suggesting that early evidence, like formerly oiled marshes that are now "greening up," indicates recovery is happening.

On day 101, Sandra Bullock stirred up the media by asking to be at least temporarily deleted from the "Be the One" video that, accompanied by a petition to conserve the coast, spread exponentially. She was informed by DeSmogBlog that Women of the Storm, the sponsoring not-for-profit, and one of its partners, the America's WETLAND Campaign, were receiving funds from a variety of oil companies, and Bullock wanted time to verify those accusations. Immediately covered by the Huffington Post and popular culture media, this announcement quickly had impact on other media's choices of topics.

Fishers and their profession experienced a new level of visibility. They had a chance to tell their stories and explain their culture to a national audience.

BP's now former CEO Tony Hayward's occasional gaffes dominated news times for short periods and were thereafter continually mentioned, especially by television and talk radio. David Hammer, The Times-Picayune staff reporter, believes too much was made of these comments. They should have been reported, then the media should have moved on.

Flow of information
BP and the rest of the unified command team held easily accessed and frequent press meetings, some live and some by phone. But most reporters will share that BP controlled the flow of information and seldom truly communicated thoroughly to the extent needed by the media. Among BP's biggest failings was not correcting incorrect information. The company simply let it slide.

Related to the control of the flow of information was the attitude of the Coast Guard and BP toward local leaders and citizens. They patrolled beaches and marshes and interrogated those they met. Over the protests of local officials and citizen groups, they removed the barges that were set at the entrances to Lake Pontchartrain to protect the estuarine embayment from surface-driven oil. They also were no-shows at a summit called by leaders in a wide array of coastal communities to discuss their activities.

One point generating much frustration along the coast was that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was tight-lipped about data gathered in the Gulf. Reporters and scientists alike were denied access. In early August, NOAA finally issued a press release saying that only about 26% of the BP oil can be accounted for, meaning that about 74% is gone. Scientists who work on oil in marine systems are now testing these data. The good news? Information was finally being shared by NOAA.

An issue first reported in July by Ben Raines of Mobile's The Press-Register concerned BP-funded scientists having to check with the Unified Command Joint Information Center before talking to the media. This is a form of censorship that blocks the ability of reporters to adequately cover coastal challenges caused by the gusher.

As in all calamities, speculation flourished. Similar to post-Katrina, rumors were ever present and the national press and especially the blogosphere, not being as familiar with local issues, were more likely to cover the rumors.

An example is the rumor that technicians from Schlumberger, a large oil services company, were on the BP oil rig to perform the final, very important battery of tests. As the rumor goes, they realized the rig was going to explode, so they left without performing their tests. This rumor was dispelled by investigative work by David Hammer, The Times-Picayune, but it is still mentioned in blogs.

It goes without saying that the BP catastrophe is complicated and very technical. In the early days, the focus was on the actual explosion, with only a suggestion of what was to come.

Media stars born
One of the media stars post-Katrina was Richard Campanella. He is a superb storyteller and is equipped with marvelous maps of everything demographic and geographic in the New Orleans area. Since the storm, Campanella is in high demand as a speaker and gathering organizer for all things New Orleans. Before the storm, Campanella was not widely known in the community. He ran a GIS lab at Tulane University and worked on scholarly studies on the history and associated geography of the region. Just before Katrina hit, Campanella submitted for publication a book entitled Geographies of New Orleans, chock full of maps and an in-depth analysis of the process by which New Orleans developed over time. He gave a talk to a large group of planners and engaged citizens using his previously unseen slides and was catapulted to his present status of information guru.

This "Campanella Effect" seems to happen with each disaster. When the BP oil tragedy unfolded, Professor Eric Smith was quietly working in the Tulane (University) Energy Institute. Smith spent most of his career in the oil industry, and he is acutely aware of the technology of oil exploration. He is also an excellent communicator of that information and served the media just as Campanella did for Hurricane Katrina.

As usual, most bench scientists were reluctant to engage in the media discussion. The tension between reporters and scientists peaks during periods of a plethora of unknowns, and the BP oil gusher fit the model. There were notable exceptions, and the citizens are better off for it. As always, there were scientists who stepped into the limelight: Shirley Laska, a retired sociologist from the University of New Orleans, Denise Reed, a wetland ecologist from the same institution, Ed Overton and Ralph Portier, environmental scientists who specialize in oil at LSU, and a host of economists. Loyola University has responded by offering media training for those specialties that are likely to be called upon during disasters.

State and local politicians became media darlings. They were on camera every day, speaking passionately about their opinions on how to move forward. Polls showed their messages and techniques were resonating with citizens.

It was evident that elected officials had been loath to seek guidance from the world-renowned coastal scientists in Louisiana regarding empirically tested solutions. This has caused tremendous consternation among long-tenured coastal advocates, but the officials' actions, no matter how severely criticized by scientists and not-for-profit wetland organizations, were embraced by the public, as shown in polls.

Support vessels surround the Q4000, right, in the Gulf of Mexico during flaring operations at twilight. Photo © Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times.

 

TV coverage shines
It goes without saying that all media have been active: print, television, radio, blogs, and magazines. Additionally, certain not-for-profit organizations have contributed valuable information.

People expect newspapers to be thorough in their coverage, especially the larger locals such as The Times-Picayune, Baton Rouge's The Advocate and The Press-Register. They also typically expect TV to give less depth but more pointed coverage. One of the pleasant surprises was the detailed and extensive coverage given by the majors: ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC. All had news crews combing the coast, and it was not unusual to have prime-time anchors giving extensive reports from the field. Andrew Tyndall (in Bauder, 2010) reported that through July 16th, ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a total of 1,183 minutes of oil gusher news, approximately "one-third of the broadcast time over a two-month period."

The Times-Picayune has done a phenomenal job sleuthing out every angle of the catastrophe. Their staff members, like those at most U.S. newspapers, have been subjected to recent budget cuts and accompanying reductions. The paper has consistently delivered an excellent product to its readers. But the BP catastrophe tested the paper's limits, and it became apparent to the reporting team that their bench was too thin. Their accomplishments with Katrina/Rita could not be repeated, not because of a dearth of talent, but because of the depth of the team. It has served the public well by focusing on what it does well and efficiently, but it has avoided coverage where staff was lacking, such as doing detailed investigative work, leafing through files, etc. According to Mark Schleifstein, environment reporter with The Times-Picayune, it also expanded its pairing with ProPublica, not only joint venturing, as it did with the Danziger Bridge shootings post- Katrina, but now publishing its work directly.

Schleifstein added that The Times-Picayune used talented interns and painstakingly chose topics to focus coverage on the most important regional issues, resisting the urge to cover issues that may be of wider appeal nationally. As an example, the nationals discovered how the oil industry co-opted the Minerals Management Service (MMS) (now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement) process, a tedious investigative job that required larger staffs and a major presence away from the coast.

The Times-Picayune, among many others, effectively used graphics to convey its messaging. There was a host of graphics showing how the oil industry was attempting to resolve the gusher, and the Animated Graphic Summarizing the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. Among the most important web posts were the live feeds from the BP ROVs that allowed everyone to view what was actually happening 5,000 feet below the surface. It was mesmerizing to watch the crude oil belch out of the earth. Valerie Brown, science and environment writer and member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, considered it a disorder she called spillcam hypnosis.

USA Today has given good coverage, and that is largely due to having a correspondent based in New Orleans. He was among the first on the scene and has continued the stream of important articles reaching the paper's wide audience.

Environmental, animal concern, social justice, and sustainable energy groups arrived soon after the explosion. They have sustained their activities, communicating with their constituents and the media as well as advocating for their individual agendas.

During Katrina, an extremely valuable resource for the public evolved in the form of the United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans, 15 regional stations that simulcast the same broadcast using shared show hosts. This was the area's primary source of logistical, health, safety, environmental, etc. information. Although there has been no simulcast, talk radio has risen to the occasion once again and can be heard everywhere one goes and is on in every car and most offices. Spokespersons from BP, the Coast Guard, elected officials, and a host of experts are rotating through the shows. Callers fill in with their questions and views and show hosts share their opinions and frustrations each and every day. WWL radio, for example, posts its podcasts on its website, making them available for listeners to revisit.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade is a local environmental activist group that works with communities that must coexist with petrochemical companies. The group is strident and lean. Since it works with marginalized populations, it uses simple yet creative approaches. Its website's Oil Spill Crisis Map plots places where individuals have submitted information relating to their contact and experiences with the oil gusher or its effects. The group verified as many of the reports as possible, yet there is no external review by independent groups. This site gave journalists an innovative way to feel the pulse of individuals' concerns.

Big negative: Coverage depth
It is not surprising that there are negatives resulting from the intensity of the coverage. The breadth of coverage is admirable, but its depth is shallow. This should fix itself over time as reporters begin to prioritize by importance and delve deeper into the issues.

The Times-Picayune, and undoubtedly other coastal papers, was overwhelmed and unable to get to other important issues, such as $5 billion in local levee construction planned for this year. Staffs of coastal papers and stations were exhausted. Not only was the learning curve steep, but the stress of urgency was also immense. Nationals were seduced by false claims and accusations and have given more credence to local officials' rants than have locals, just as during Katrina.

Coverage depth was impacted by government agencies not sharing data equally with all audiences, including journalists. NOAA's close-to-the-vest policy resulted in data collected about locations of oil plumes and other relevant marine data only being shared with the Coast Guard and BP.

In turn, the Coast Guard and BP didn't share much either. That sometimes forced reporters to seek comments from sources without the data. At this writing, I just received a call from a television station to discuss the potential negative impact of oil plumes. This is no less than the 20th time I've been asked to comment on this same topic in the last month. I have an excellent understanding of the dynamics of the subsurface ecosystem, but I'm not a bench scientist whose lab is actively engaged in such studies. Some reporters too often used preliminary data as definitive, transmitting false comfort or unfounded alarm.

The future lessons
Chris Kirkham, staff reporter for The Times-Picayune, opines, "Local reporters will follow the lingering effects of the oil long after the camera crews are gone." He further asserts that locals "Will get deeper, deeper and deeper into the issues. Our work may not make a splash nationally, but it will have high impact regionally."

Based on past experience, ranging from Love Canal to Three Mile Island to Hurricane Hugo and more, the BP oil disaster will not soon be forgotten. The normal trend is that national media will occasionally revisit the event and its aftermath, while Gulf Coast media will incorporate it in every related discussion and they will frequently present updates and new findings. They won't have difficulty finding information, because the alleged largest environmental disaster in U.S. history is a fertile research area of all the fields of biophysical and social sciences.

Crisis reporting morphs into more thoughtful, analytical reporting. What were the real aftermaths vs. those predicted in the heat of the disaster? What predicted public health concerns were manifested, and what unexpected issues emerged? What was the ultimate impact of oil plumes and dispersants? How and when did fish and other Gulf biota recover? A related issue, when did the impacts on larvae and eggs floating in the water column appear? How did oyster populations respond? How did coastal communities and cultures adapt?

We do know that ultra-grim predictions tend to be overdramatized. We also know that we're not sure of the extent of damage to our ecosystem. Short term negative impacts appear less than originally predicted, but we don't know about long-term issues. Experience from the 1979 Ixtoc blowout in the Bay of Campeche tells us changes may occur in subtle ways. Fairly recent studies have shown changes in fiddler crab behaviors that make them more vulnerable to predation. What will happen to the components of the northern Gulf of Mexico fauna?

Interestingly, specialists such as Ivor van Heerden, a scientist who led Team Louisiana in its work to show that poor levee construction resulted in most of the flooding during the Katrina disaster and now employed by an oil spill response contractor, and Kerry St. Pé, director of the Baratarian-Terrebone National Estuary Program, are suggesting that the ultimate result of the BP oil may not be as bad as expected. Recently, this was the topic of discussion in articles in The New York Times, Time and on several national TV newscasts. Certainly, this will be a central theme of future reporting.

More to be explored
Living in a place where I am bombarded 24/7/365 with breaking news, summation reports, opinion, talk show radio, all news casts, blogs, telephone calls, meetings, interviews, discussions over coffee, and more, it is difficult at this time to identify topics that have not been covered. Depth, yes; topics, no.

Here's some obvious areas for more reporting:

  • What is the depth of damage actually done? This will come as the data are compiled and released.
  • What do we know about seafood safety? This is being prepared for release soon, and is of grave concern not only to coastal people who eat it daily, but all Americans since a large percentage of our national seafood consumption originates in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Why are Louisianans so accepting of the oil industry? This has been covered, but not as thoroughly as it should. We also need context. Do Louisianans feel the same about oil and gas as West Virginians about coal mining? Utah citizens about other forms of mining? Floridians about over-urbanization? Do people really believe that all Louisianans love oil and gas, even those who may oppose the moratorium for purely practical, economic reasons?
  • Will there be synergism between remains of the oil gusher and the hypoxic (dead) zone?
  • What actually happened at the explosion? Reporters early on the scene found that survivors on the Deep Horizon were quickly signed on with lawyers, so they couldn't speak to the press. This story is just emerging from the Deepwater Horizon Joint Investigative hearings, and certainly will be a focal point of interest over the coming months.
  • How good was the federal oversight of the oil industry? Why did the MMS fail to adequately regulate the industry? It appears that it was not a dearth of regulatory procedures and laws.
  • How useful are officially accepted Oil Spill Response Plans? How could MMS have failed to catch the flaws in the BP plan (mentioning plans for handling the needs of seals, sea lions, walruses, and sea otters, none of which occur in the Gulf of Mexico)? How many similar plans are sitting in this and other federal agency files?

During August 2010, Mark Schleifstein instigated an interesting thread on the SEJ listserv with the subject line "one year, two years redux" that solicited ideas for continued coverage on the BP oil gusher, and the SEJ membership responded appropriately.

But here may be the biggest challenge: How do we deal with the bewildering quantity of new information, none of which existed before April 20, 2010?

Somehow finding the key lessons from this Gulf disaster may be a bit like trying to shut off a gushing oil well thousands of feet below the sea's surface. It obviously will take more time, more reports and more thought.

But inklings of the lessons may already be developing in interesting ways. Each day, The Times-Picayune publishes an updated map of the present location, size, and density of surface oil, landed oil, and the area of uncertainty. These visual recaps lead me to believe that periodic revisits and summaries of important, standardized data will help the curious reader/viewer follow important events and help people understand complex information to which they have not been exposed.

Robert A. Thomas, professor and director, Loyola Center for Environmental Communication, School of Mass Communication, Loyola University New Orleans, can be reached at rathomas@loyno.edu .

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2010 issue.

ROBERT A. THOMAS