That’s an important point. Many accounts (including the one I wrote yesterday) have left the impression that 74 percent of the oil had been “dealt with,” and 26 percent of the oil was “still out there.” Included in that 74 percent figure, however, is 24 percent of the total oil, which has only been chemically or naturally “dispersed” (see here), meaning that it’s still in the system—just broken up in to smaller droplets.
Both The Washington Post and NPR pointed out that NOAA’s Lubchenco had to correct a misunderstanding fostered by White House climate and energy advisor Carol Browner, who said on the Today Show Wednesday that “more than three-quarters of the oil is gone.” Lubchenco clarified that about half the spilled oil has actually been removed from the Gulf ecosystem through skimming, burning, collection, and evaporation.
As for The New York Times, it acknowledged the debate over the federal report in two articles on Thursday—one on the front page and one inside. The inside article attributed most of the related skepticism to Gulf coast residents rather than independent scientists, however, and seemed to defend the Times’s Wednesday article, reporting that “The implication of the report was that future damage from the oil might be less than had been feared.” The front-page article seemed to dismiss lingering concerns almost entirely, surmising that “The skepticism has been stoked by environmental groups that came to the gulf in droves, lawyers who have been soliciting clients from billboards along roads leading south, a sensation-hungry news media and politicians who have gained broad popularity for thundering in opposition to response officials.”
It’s shocking how similar that sounds to comments by Rush Limbaugh, who, citing the Times’s Wednesday article, launched into a tirade accusing the media of being “willing accomplices” in an anti-capitalist agenda that “wanted this disaster” to help further their cause. “The fact is they can’t find the oil,” he said. “This hilarious … nature always cleans itself up.”
Well, no… not always. Yet reporters should, in fact, be careful to avoid and combat sensationalism related to the Gulf spill. Again, this is not about drumming up an ecological catastrophe that isn’t. It’s about refusing to accept government and industry assurances that everything is hunky-dory without at least making a few calls and getting some outside opinion. Yes, the press needs to avoid alarmism, but it also needs to avoid credulity.