“I think we all need to understand that we, at least in the history of this country, we’ve never put this much oil into the water. And we need to take this very seriously,” he said.
[Update, 8/3: On Tuesday, the Times reported that federal scientists and engineers “believe that the current estimates are accurate to within 10 percent. They also reported that of the roughly 4.9 million barrels that had been released from the well, about 800,000 had been captured by BP’s containment efforts. That leaves over four million barrels that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from April 20 to July 15.”]
While the Times should be commended for delivering a more nuanced account of the situation than the AFP or BBC, however, its article also could have done more to emphasize the lingering threat of oil. The top half of the story is devoted to a discussion of the “good news” that oil on the surface of the Gulf is dissipating quickly. But a quote in which Jane Lubchenco, the head of that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stresses that “less oil on the surface does not mean that there isn’t oil beneath the surface … or that our beaches and marshes are not still at risk,” probably should have run higher than the fourteenth paragraph.
“We are extremely concerned about the short-term and long-term impacts of the gulf ecosystem,” Lubchenco said.
A shorter article in The Washington Post on Tuesday deserves credit for highlighting that concern immediately after the disclosure that the surface slick has receded. And a front-page story that it ran on Thursday is commendable for describing the oil as “unaccounted for” rather than “vanished” (the Times’s term). Yet the latter article loses points for leading with the suggestion that former BP CEO Tony Hayward was right when he said back in May that “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean” and the that the amount of oil was small by comparison. After all, eight paragraphs down Lubchenco makes it clear that diluted does not mean benign.
That point was also picked up by the Los Angeles Times, which had one of the best ledes (buried on page twelve, unfortunately), accentuating the fact that:
Even though significantly less crude is now floating on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, federal officials warned Tuesday that the region could still suffer long-term negative impacts from the spill, particularly from oil beneath the water’s surface.
Which isn’t to say that reporters should ignore signs of recovery or trump up negative impacts where they don’t exist, but the media must avoid falling into the “mission-accomplished” trap until government, industry, and independent scientists have collected more data. Avoiding alarmism on one hand and complacency on the other is a difficult job, however. Take a controversial report that Michael Grunwald penned for Time magazine’s Web site on Thursday, arguing that “while it’s important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger [of the spill] is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago – it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage.”
Grunwald argues that the media have an “obvious incentive to accentuate the negative in the Gulf … because disasters drive ratings and sell magazines.” That may be true to a certain extent, but, as Mother Jones’s Kate Sheppard fairly points out, “if he’s going to criticize folks for making premature doomsday predictions, then he, too, shouldn’t engage in making preemptive declarations that the problem is exaggerated, either.”
Indeed, Grunwald’s piece sparked a bit of disagreement at Time, where his colleague, Bryan Walsh, felt compelled to offer this response:
I think it’s far too early to declare the oil spill a bust… The truth is we know very little about what the release of tens of millions of gallons of oil underwater will do to the marine ecosystems of the Gulf. Add in the application of some 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants, which have never been used—and were never meant to be used—in such vast quantities…
Grunwald is taking a land-centric view of the spill—as long as the oil doesn’t show up on the beach, it’s probably not doing much damage. But that’s far from clear today, just a little over 100 days from the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon.