I know I’m starting to sound like a stuck record relating to my analysis of how the media operates. I also realize that most of the rest of the world has moved on from the Gulf Spill and has a serious and very understandable case of spill fatigue. But, the lessons continue and for me one of the most important is looking at how the media covered this event and what it means for building trust in future events.
The story in the New York Times yesterday illustrates an important point. Here are some relevant quotes from this article which is titled: “Gulf May Avoid Direst Predictions After Oil Spill:” Yet as the weeks pass, evidence is increasing that through a combination of luck (a fortunate shift in ocean currents that kept much of the oil away from shore) and ecological circumstance (the relatively warm waters that increased the breakdown rate of the oil), the gulf region appears to have escaped the direst predictions of the spring…And preliminary reports from scientists studying the effects on marshes, wildlife and the gulf itself suggest that the damage already done by the spill may also be significantly less than was feared — less, in fact, than the destruction from the much smaller Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989.
First, hats off to New York Times for writing a good news story about the spill. Next–a question: why is zero credit given to the over 60,000 people who worked on this event, often at great personal sacrifice? Certainly, the conditions mentioned contributed to what looks to be a much more positive outcome than was dared hope for, but the prodigious efforts of the responders and response leaders also contributed significantly to minimizing environmental damage. And economic damage–remarkably for example, traffic up and down the Mississippi was not curtailed even with very strong efforts to ensure impacts the spill were not carried upriver.
But my real point is this. NYT like most other media was not shy a bit about highlighting the experts who made these dire predictions. The most serious predictions ended up in the headlines–and why not? Their job is to gets eyes on the pages or the screens of their websites or tv news reports. So for weeks if not months we heard these dire predictions over and over. I can’t recall many examples of reporting at the height of the “fear creation” stage of the response saying, “but we have other experts here who are saying it probably won’t be so bad.”
So, they use these experts–the more dramatic the better–to compete to win in the infotainment game. Nothing really new about that. After all, what did Billy Nungesser and the other loud critics have to contribute to the public’s understanding of the spill and the response efforts? Nothing of substance, but a heck of a lot of entertainment value. What gets me is that when all the fear-mongering turns out to be overblown, I have yet to see a reporter or publisher say “oops, mea culpa, we did a bad thing.” No, it is those same experts who got it wrong. One of them, as I blogged about earlier, admitted he got it wrong. Good for him. But it is not just the experts who got it wrong–it was the media who made much of their fallible predictions. Certainly they can say, “it is not our job to evaluate their viability, we just report what they say.” Yeah, right. But is it the expert’s responsibility when the whole world gets a faulty understanding of what is happening? The experts would say “we just give our educated opinion, which may be right or wrong. We can’t be held accountable for how the news media uses or abuses these opinions.”
Exactly, no accountability. We know who is accountable for the spill, no question there. Who will be held accountable for creating false impressions?