Fortunately, a few reporters were not so complacent. An article in late June 2008 by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Don Hopey balanced statements about advanced technologies with a no-bones-about-it explanation that “offshore drilling accidents can [still] be devastating.” Similarly, a few weeks later, USA Today’s Rick Jervis, William Welch, and Richard Wolf had a long and detailed analysis of whether or not offshore drilling was “worth the risk,” whose headline stressed, “doubts persist despite oil industry’s advances.” Yet even that article, with all its cautionary language, offered readers the takeaway message that:

Government officials and industry specialists say improved technology and government oversight have made routine drilling safe.…

Today’s technology, such as automatic shutoff valves on the seabed floor and mechanical devices that can prevent blowouts caused by uncontrolled buildups of pressure, has greatly reduced risk of oil spill.

That the number and volume of oil spills has, in fact, decreased over recent decades is the likely explanation for the complacency evident in the 2008 coverage (and beyond). The statistics seemed to distract reporters from asking that all-important question: “But what if…?” Few seemed to recognize—as The New Times only recently observed—that while drilling technologies had improved, cleanup technologies had not.

Moving forward, that concern needs to be front and center in journalists’ minds, especially given that BP is not the only oil company currently operating under potentially overstated promises of “proven” technologies. An excellent analysis that Greenwire published on Wednesday pointed out that:

Most of the three dozen or so companies that kept drilling in deep water in the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank got their regulatory approvals based on documents stating they could easily mop up spills, even gushers many times the stated size of the BP spill. But there’s no indication they have any better method than BP.

Indeed, if this disaster has taught reporters anything, it is that we can no longer allow ourselves to be deceived by exaggerated promises that technology can save the day.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.