Scientists aren’t happy about media coverage of the spill either

August 25, 2010

I’m guessing most in America have finally diverted their attention away from the spill. For those who are still watching you might have noticed the back and forth in the media about the “Manhattan-size” underwater plume. NOAA and the Unified Command science team provided an oil spill “budget” that a couple of weeks ago showed all but 26% of the oil gone, and the 26% being rapidly degraded. Then, last week, news came from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute that they discovered a “Manhattan-size” oil plume suspended underwater that contradicted NOAA’s and the science teams oil budget. There was a bit of a stir about this and the media certainly jumped on the story to show, what many wanted to believe, and that is the government is wrong, can’t be trusted and that there is much greater danger still existing from the oil than Unified Command and NOAA would have us believe. It was the academic scientists against the government scientists.

One of those academic scientists, Christopher Reddy, the director of the Coastal Ocean Institute at Woods Hole, wrote an op-ed piece published on that brings to light this “conflict.”  His essential point seems to be that when scientists engage in back and forth in interpreting data and they share that with scientifically ignorant reporters, the media ends up making a “big story” out of something that may not be so big. Here’s how he describes his situation:

I must have spoken with at least 25 journalists last week, and despite my every effort to explain our findings, the media were more interested in using the new information to portray a duel between competing scientists. The story turned into an us-versus-them scenario in which some scientists are right and others are wrong. Seeking to elucidate, I felt caught in a crossfire.

When I do media training and consulting with clients about dealing with the media, I try to make a few points that admittedly make me sound very cynical and anti-media. I tell my clients that most often when a reporter approaches you the story they are telling is already fixed in their heads. They simply want from you the quotes that can add spice to the story. If you information conflicts with the narrative they have already created, you will either not be quoted or what you say will be twisted to fit the story they have already written at least in their minds. Secondly, reporting today is mostly entertainment and takes the form of melodrama. It is simplified conflict with usually good guys and bad guys and something, the public good, they are fighting over. It is fairly easy to understand how they will approach the story involving you when you think about who might be the good guy, who the bad guy, and what you are fighting over.

In this case, at least according to Mr. Reddy, the scientists provided information that would help fill in the bigger picture of where is the oil in the gulf. But instead of educating the public on the additional data, the media turned it into a story of conflict, competing interests where in this case the government who has taken the responsibility for the oil from BP is hiding or denying the facts to make themselves look good, while the scientists at the academic institutions are the brave, honest, trustworthy fighters for the truth. While Mr. Reddy and his team had the white hats on in this story, they didn’t appreciate how the information they provided got spun into entertainment.

Meanwhile, abcnews provides a report showing that microbes at the oil, diminishing the plume. Much to ABC’s credit, their lead paragraphs point out that the conflicts in report may not really be conflicting:

These latest findings may initially seem to be at odds with a study published last Thursday in Science by researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which confirmed the existence of the oil plume and said micro-organisms did not seem to be biodegrading it very quickly.

However, Hazen and Rich Camilli of Woods Hole both said on Tuesday that the studies complement each other.

In all honesty, I suspect that what happened behind the scenes is that the science team and NOAA got with the Woods Hole folks and said, for pete’s sake guys, if you’re going to go off spouting your mouth off about big plumes that contradicts what we are saying, give us a heads up and let us get our act together before running to the media. Properly chastened, Mr. Reddy may have offered up the op-ed and worked to show collaboration that showed up in the abc report. But that is pure speculation on my part.

The point is to understand how the media works. Did they love the conflict between Woods Hole and NOAA? Absolutely. Could they get more eyes on their screens or papers this way? Absolutely. Does it fit the “melodrama” theory of today’s infotainment? Yes, it does. Does it mean the media is being irresponsible? Hmmm, I wouldn’t go that far. It’s just important for those dealing with the media to understand how they operate and be a little smarter in how they work with them. And it would be helpful if the American people were a little more sophisticated in their understanding of how the media creates conflicts and stories like this. On the other hand, given the exceptionally low trust in the media, maybe I’m not giving the American public enough credit.


4 Responses to “Scientists aren’t happy about media coverage of the spill either”

  1. Well some wit once stated “Science informs but cannot decide” so let’s just get the raw data over next six months and some more analysis before judgement is rendered. IMO and maybe wrong, and I have great respect normally for NOAA science, I think their down to 26% estimate, guestimate, or whatever will turn out to be scientific hooey and wonder why they made that announcement using such precision? An interesting story would be NOAA’s performance in the BP catastrophe? I do know there were direct controls placed on NOAA by the White House and Secretary of Commerce on their pronouncements. This is not unusual and wonderinf if NOAA had a formal role in the JIC? Still would like to know what led to kicking BP out of the JIC about June 1st?

    • gbaron Says:

      William, I had a very nice conversation with the NOAA representative in the JIC when I visited late June. Not sure what you mean by formal role as the EA/JIC were not really operating that way at that stage. Also, reasons for the action re BP will be discussed in my upcoming case study.

  2. J.D. Says:

    And yet, the (liberal-leaning, journalist-favoring) Pew Research Center just unveiled a fairly positive report about how the media covered the oil spill:

    Thought you’d appreciate the link.

    • gbaron Says:

      J.D. — congrats on your NYT score! I read the Pew report and found it fascinating. I just blogged on it at and will do here when I get a chance. Would love to see your insights on that report. I have a few thoughts of my own.

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