COMMENTARY: How Coverage of the BP Gulf Disaster Manages to be Too Soft and Sensationalized

By: Jeff Crider

In many respects, the media’s reporting of events surrounding the Gulf oil spill is a defining moment in the history of journalism, in good ways and in bad.

As a former investigative print journalist, I think reporters need to go much farther in their reporting and ask tougher questions, not only of lawmakers and U.S. regulators, but of ourselves. Why does the U.S. allow a company like BP, with more than 700 safety violations in recent years, to stay in business when their actions clearly show the company has no respect for U.S. laws, U.S. employees or the environment?

When it comes to BP, is the U.S. as powerless as Ecuador has been in holding Chevron accountable for its devastating oil spills in the Amazon jungle? Are we as weak as the Indian government has been in its handling of Union Carbide’s deadly 1984 disaster in Bhopal? Are all governments paper tigers when it comes to holding multinational firms accountable for their actions? If that’s the case, what can be done about it?
Journalism in the public interest should not only expose problems such as these, but identify clear roadmaps to reform and hold policymakers responsible for implementing these reforms along the way.

By the same token, in my current role handling media relations for the private campground industry, I see first hand the economic damage that results from sensationalized and inaccurate reporting of both the location of spill and its effect on Gulf Coast beaches.

As of the time of this writing, beachfront resorts in several areas of Florida had not really seen much evidence of the spill. Some see tar balls once in a while. Others go days or weeks without seeing any evidence of the spill at all. Yet reporters often lead people to think that the entire Gulf Coast has been painted black from Louisiana to Florida.

Having lost 50 percent of its business due to this kind of reporting, Camping on the Gulf in Destin, Fla. now posts narrated beach videos on its website each day to show the actual conditions of the beaches and the surf. They also post interviews with guests, many of whom are astounded by the fact that the beach has been relatively untouched by the spill, even though daily and nightly news reporters have most Americans thinking otherwise.

Sharing a similar concern, Bella Terra Motorcoach Resort in Foley, Ala., has posted links on its website to several beach video cams, so people can see for themselves what the beaches are really like, rather than rely on the media.

As a former reporter, I am embarrassed to see businesses having to take these kinds of actions to counter inaccurate or sensational media reports. This is the kind of thing that undermines public confidence in the media in general. It’s a tragedy that careless reporting is exacerbating the economic harm to Gulf Coast businesses.

Some beachfront resort operators believe the media has done more harm to their businesses than BP. That’s a troubling assessment. It’s as if beachfront businesses have become the friendly fire casualties of reporters covering the spill.

So what can the media do to correct the misconceptions? Aside from using greater care in reporting the spill’s location, I know tourism related businesses could benefit from stories that highlight the many stretches of Gulf Coast beaches that remain in good shape, despite the spill.

I know that’s not a terribly sexy story from a news standpoint. But it may be easier – and more productive – for many organizations to do that than publicly apologize for the sensational or inaccurate content in many of their previous reports.

Years from now, when students of journalism study coverage of BP’s oil spill and its aftermath, I hope they conclude that positive changes came from it, and that reporters didn’t simply compound the problem by carelessly destroying tourism-related businesses along the Gulf Coast in their quest for good story.

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