Meet the AP’s New Oil Spill Editor

A Q&A with Steve Gutkin

At the end of June, the Associated Press announced that it had named an oil spill editor, Steve Gutkin, to supervise coverage of the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. CJR’s Curtis Brainard sent Gutkin—in the process of moving to Atlanta after spending the past six years as AP bureau chief in Jerusalem—a number of questions via e-mail about his plans for the new desk. The AP has created partial archive of its Gulf oil spill coverage as well as a video of coverage highlights.

Curtis Brainard: How many journalists will you be working with, and what is your basic coverage strategy going to be?

Steve Gutkin: AP has had more than 200 journalists from the various formats involved in the oil spill coverage. As we are setting up to cover the spill and its aftermath for the long haul, we are going to do some reorganizing, starting with my appointment and the hiring of two additional new reporters devoted exclusively to this story.

Our journalists along the Gulf coast have been working day and night to tell this heart-wrenching story, and I hope these new additions will build on their terrific work. One of the new reporters will be a cross-platform reporter to cover the overwhelming effect of the spill on the life, culture and economy of the Gulf Coast, which depends on fishing, tourism and energy jobs to survive. The other will be an oil industry reporter who will focus on such issues as offshore drilling and the long-term repercussions for BP and the energy industry. This journalist will also focus on how this disaster might determine the future course of America’s energy policies, and Americans’ views on fossil fuels.

We have divided our coverage into different areas of focus, ranging from causes to relief efforts to the economic and political impact of the disaster. We also aim to make full use of the enormous resources AP has at its disposal, which include rich staffing in bureaus from New Orleans to Washington, D.C. to London, teams of investigative reporters and a talented group of journalists dedicated to telling the story through visual and multimedia means. My job will be to take the bird’s eye view, ensure that our multi-faceted coverage comes together in a cohesive way and keep thinking of new ideas and fresh ways to engage news consumers around the world.

CB: What are the biggest questions the public needs answered, and what are your reporting goals in general?

SG: My overriding goal will be to ensure that AP is providing distinctive, news-breaking and compelling coverage of the spill in all its aspects, be it environmental, financial, political, scientific or cultural. The story will enter different phases at various points in time. We aim to plan for and anticipate these changes, and to focus our efforts on coverage that that has real impact.

There is a sense among many in the public that a wall of silence is still surrounding BP and the recovery efforts. We want to help bring down that wall, and do what we can to answer some fundamental questions. Will life ever return to normal? When will the spill be plugged? Will the hurricane season exacerbate the devastation? What is the real extent of the damage, especially in places that are not easily seen, such as the underwater food chain and the marine mammals that rely on it? What does this spill mean for the U.S. energy supply and the future of offshore drilling? What does it mean for Obama?

CB: What do you foresee being the biggest challenges to effective coverage?

SG: The story is so big and so multi-faceted - affecting lives, livelihoods, wildlife, stock prices, fish supplies, tourism, British pensioners, the fate of a president and his party - that it could never be easy to pull all the strands together. But we intend to do that as best we can. Other challenges include officials who stonewall or refuse to talk, deciphering the difference between truth and spin, figuring out whether the government or BP are cutting corners in areas such as finishing the relief wells, containing the spread of oil or saving wildlife and marshes.

CB: How has covering war, terrorism, political intrigue, and natural disasters prepared you for this assignment?

SG: I have been covering and leading coverage of big, complex stories for many years. During the past six years as AP bureau chief in Jerusalem, I have led a large group of journalists covering Israel and the Palestinian territories. I have also helped lead our coverage in Iraq and Afghanistan, and my experience includes covering a number of disasters, including devastating landslides in Venezuela, an earthquake in Colombia and hurricanes in Mexico and Puerto Rico. I spent over a decade in South America covering the drug and guerrilla wars, and spent quite a few years in Asia as well. I hope these experiences have given me a deep understanding of our core mission as journalists - to bear witness and to tell a story, and to do so in the most interesting, compelling way possible.

CB: The effects and consequences of the spill will obviously be with us for a long time. So, is this a permanent position, and how might it change over time?

SG: I expect the position to last about a year, but it could go even longer depending on how long the crisis lasts. Clearly we’re talking about months and years, not days or weeks, when we look at the devastating, long-term impact on life in the Gulf of Mexico.

CB: This week the Project for Excellence reported that, “After a brief absence, the Gulf oil spill returned to the top of the news agenda last week. But the level of recent coverage suggests that the story that has dominated the mainstream media for more than two months is finally losing some steam.” As time goes on, how do you keep the public engaged with this story and guard against reader fatigue?

SG: This is another big challenge - to find fresh angles and new and compelling ways to tell the story. By focusing on the lives of real people, by uncovering stories that no one else has told, or by investigating omissions and wrongdoings that are of keen interest to the public, I believe we can keep the public engaged.

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