Media Scrutinize Spill Report

Day Two coverage quotes wider array of scientists

Many marine scientists lack complete faith in a federal report tracking the fate of the roughly 4.9 million barrels of oil that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico this summer, the media have found.

The report, released Wednesday, found that roughly 74 percent of the oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico this summer has been collected, skimmed, burned, dispersed, and other means. The New York Times obtained an advance copy and covered it in a front-page story that hit doorsteps early Wednesday, before the feds’ official release.

I criticized the paper for leading with the declaration that the government was “expected” to say that the uncollected oil—almost five times the amount that the Exxon Valdez dumped in the Prince William Sound—is “so diluted that it does not seem to pose much additional risk of harm.” There was very little to justify that expectation and, indeed, federal officials ended up saying nothing of the sort.

“No one is saying it’s not a threat anymore,” said Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Ocean Atmospheric Administration (which helped with the federal report), according to The Huffington Post. On the contrary, the federal report and other scientists stressed the additional risk of harm and that it is important to remain vigilant. To be fair, the New York Times article contained a number of caveats to this effect, but what it did not do was quote a single scientist besides Lubchenco. She is a highly respected marine ecologist, and deservedly so—but a one-source story is just not good science reporting.

Thankfully, other journalists began calling around on Wednesday afternoon, and found while scientists aren’t necessarily dismissing the federal spill report, they are, to a degree, skeptical about its accuracy and some of its conclusions. One of the most widely reprinted quotes so far came from Florida State University oceanography professor Ian MacDonald. “This is a shaky report. The more I read it, the less satisfied I am with the thoroughness of the presentation,” he told the Associated Press. “There are sweeping assumptions here.”

The AP article quoted three other scientists with mixed opinions. Ed Overton, an environmental chemist and professor emeritus at Louisiana State University who reviewed the federal report, said he wasn’t comfortable with NOAA attaching precise numbers to how much oil was left in Gulf. But he defended the work overall and called the Gulf “incredibly resilient.”

The point about resilience is very important (a separate AP survey of 75 scientists found a high expectation that the Gulf will cover) and should not be overlooked. The skepticism about the federal report and my criticism of The New York Times does not mean that journalists should be hyping the idea that there is an irreversible ecological catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf. The point is merely that throughout this ordeal it has always been in the press’s best interest to take government and industry assurances with a large grain of salt.

One outlet that did that very well was McClatchy’s Washington bureau. Like the AP, it talked to a handful of marine scientists in order to do a properly nuanced analysis, which delved into some the federal report’s specific shortcomings:

“There is a lot of uncertainty in these figures,” said James H. Cowan, Jr., a professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University.

For example, the report doesn’t explain how its authors decided what was naturally dispersed oil and what was chemically dispersed oil. They gave no details of how they estimated the evaporation rate of oil - something that’s difficult to do over large areas of seawater because of the effects of weather and other factors, Cowan said.

Likewise, on the Gulf, the St. Petersburg Times in Tampa Bay found skepticism of the government report among researchers from the University of South Florida to Texas Tech:

Independent scientists scoffed at the report’s findings. Several pointed out that the report estimates that a quarter of the oil is still floating in the gulf or contaminating beaches and marshes, while another quarter was dispersed, either with chemicals or naturally.

In other words, half of it, or about 2.5 million barrels, is still unrecovered.

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.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.