Politics & Policy

Slippery Oil, Slipshod Coverage

In their reporting on the Gulf spill, the media have been wallowing in exaggeration.

So who’s responsible for the Great Oil Spill Panic of 2010? Surprise, surprise: Scientists are starting to complain about the media’s alarmist interpretation of their preliminary public assessments.

Let’s start with Vernon Asper, the scientist whose team on the research vessel Pelican discovered the much-discussed underwater plumes of oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and who was the first to describe them to the media. Since he’s currently at sea and unavailable for an interview, we’ll let him speak for himself in Nature:

But once he was on shore, Asper found himself at the centre of a mess that would in some ways prove even more challenging than understanding the deep oil. He had agreed to be the Pelican team’s media face, and he did interviews from just after dawn until the evening on the day they returned. “It was just a crazy, crazy, crazy day,” says Asper. “It was a twilight zone.”

During the interviews, he described the evidence for a hidden plume of deep oil that was spreading an untold amount of hydrocarbons into the Gulf. Asper believes he was careful to note that more analyses were needed before anything could be said for sure. Still, some media reports gave the impression that huge lakes of crude oil were hiding in the deep — a view not supported by the data.

“It was a surprise to us that we had been misinterpreted,” says Asper, who admits that he entered the fray with little media experience. But he says that he did what he could to keep the record straight, and doesn’t know how he could have better controlled the picture that the media painted.

Asper is still worried about the long-term consequences of the spill and the plumes.

Meanwhile, the media tried to resurrect the most lurid scenarios for size of the plumes, despite official reports issued by Incident Commander Thad Allen that roughly three-quarters of the oil is gone. Those reports are backed up by the widespread surveys of the Gulf that are looking for oil and not finding it.

The most recent vehicle for plume mania was the first peer-reviewed study of the spill, published on August 19 in Science by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which confirmed the existence of underwater oil plumes “the size of Manhattan” and also suggested, less definitively, that bacteria weren’t eating them. The press wallowed in exaggeration, with many reports implying that the Woods Hole study both justified the media’s paranoia about the plumes and also put the government in its place. Some examples: “Major Study Proves Oil Plume That’s Not Going Away” (AP); “Oil Plume from Spill Persists, Data Show” (Wall Street Journal), “Oil Plume Is Not Breaking Down Fast, Study Says” (New York Times).

In fact, that’s not what it said, according to Woods Hole. In an op-ed piece on the CNN website, one of the study’s authors, Christopher Reddy, gave the media a thorough spanking, writing:

Even though my colleagues and I repeatedly avoided contrasting our results with previous NOAA estimates that some 75 percent of the spilled oil was already gone from the Gulf, much of last week’s coverage of our work made that a prominent part of the story.

For example, The Washington Post reported, “Academic scientists are challenging the Obama administration’s assertion that most of BP’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico is either gone or rapidly disappearing — with one group Thursday announcing the discovery of a 22-mile ‘plume’ of oil that shows little sign of vanishing.”

Within a few days, there was another media-created battle of the bands, when a second peer-reviewed study — this one from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) — was published in Science. It looked at the plume from a different angle by directly measuring bacterial activity, and concluded that the bacteria were rapidly disposing of the oil. The LBNL researchers, led by Dr. Terry Hazen, continued their work after the paper was written, and are still monitoring the Gulf. According to Hazen, the plume has been eaten, and his team is finding little or no oil. Their work has been part of the basis of the official estimates.

The media backpedaled furiously: “Microbes Consumed Oil Plume, Study Says” (Washington Post); “Newly Discovered Microbe Helped Disperse Oil, Study Finds” (CNN); “Undersea Oil Plume Vanishes in Gulf, Degraded by Previously Unknown Bug” (New York Times). In a hilarious editorial penned after the release of the Woods Hole study but before the LBNL data were made available, the Times urged the Obama administration to clarify the situation for its obviously confused reporters and editors, proving once again why it has never needed a comics section.

Hazen told me that the battle-of-the-bands approach was mistaken, and that the Woods Hole study and his were complementary, not contradictory. Apparently everyone but the media was aware of the fact that, as I reported in NR, the plumes were highly diluted, and most of the oil was doing what it was supposed to do: float, biodegrade, and evaporate. As for the stuff that wasn’t floating to the surface immediately, all scientists agree that it is nasty, and its undefined persistence and long-term effects remain to studied.

And the media? There’s no denying that the Deepwater spill was an ecological disaster, Hazen says, but “the press coverage was sort of appalling. They actually interviewed me for NBC Nightly News, and I was telling them the exact same thing two months ago, that basically all the other folks that know about this stuff would tell them: to calm down, it’s going to go away, it’s a natural substance, it’s going to be biodegraded.”

Lou Dolinar is a retired columnist and reporter for Newsday. He is currently in Mobile, Ala., working on a book about what really did happen in the Deepwater Horizon spill.


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