Tag Archives: NOAA

Scientists aren't happy about media coverage of the spill either

I’m guessing most in America have finally diverted their attention away from the spill. For those who are still watching you might have noticed the back and forth in the media about the “Manhattan-size” underwater plume. NOAA and the Unified Command science team provided an oil spill “budget” that a couple of weeks ago showed all but 26% of the oil gone, and the 26% being rapidly degraded. Then, last week, news came from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute that they discovered a “Manhattan-size” oil plume suspended underwater that contradicted NOAA’s and the science teams oil budget. There was a bit of a stir about this and the media certainly jumped on the story to show, what many wanted to believe, and that is the government is wrong, can’t be trusted and that there is much greater danger still existing from the oil than Unified Command and NOAA would have us believe. It was the academic scientists against the government scientists.

One of those academic scientists, Christopher Reddy, the director of the Coastal Ocean Institute at Woods Hole, wrote an op-ed piece published on CNN.com that brings to light this “conflict.”  His essential point seems to be that when scientists engage in back and forth in interpreting data and they share that with scientifically ignorant reporters, the media ends up making a “big story” out of something that may not be so big. Here’s how he describes his situation:

I must have spoken with at least 25 journalists last week, and despite my every effort to explain our findings, the media were more interested in using the new information to portray a duel between competing scientists. The story turned into an us-versus-them scenario in which some scientists are right and others are wrong. Seeking to elucidate, I felt caught in a crossfire.

When I do media training and consulting with clients about dealing with the media, I try to make a few points that admittedly make me sound very cynical and anti-media. I tell my clients that most often when a reporter approaches you the story they are telling is already fixed in their heads. They simply want from you the quotes that can add spice to the story. If you information conflicts with the narrative they have already created, you will either not be quoted or what you say will be twisted to fit the story they have already written at least in their minds. Secondly, reporting today is mostly entertainment and takes the form of melodrama. It is simplified conflict with usually good guys and bad guys and something, the public good, they are fighting over. It is fairly easy to understand how they will approach the story involving you when you think about who might be the good guy, who the bad guy, and what you are fighting over.

In this case, at least according to Mr. Reddy, the scientists provided information that would help fill in the bigger picture of where is the oil in the gulf. But instead of educating the public on the additional data, the media turned it into a story of conflict, competing interests where in this case the government who has taken the responsibility for the oil from BP is hiding or denying the facts to make themselves look good, while the scientists at the academic institutions are the brave, honest, trustworthy fighters for the truth. While Mr. Reddy and his team had the white hats on in this story, they didn’t appreciate how the information they provided got spun into entertainment.

Meanwhile, abcnews provides a report showing that microbes at the oil, diminishing the plume. Much to ABC’s credit, their lead paragraphs point out that the conflicts in report may not really be conflicting:

These latest findings may initially seem to be at odds with a study published last Thursday in Science by researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which confirmed the existence of the oil plume and said micro-organisms did not seem to be biodegrading it very quickly.

However, Hazen and Rich Camilli of Woods Hole both said on Tuesday that the studies complement each other.

In all honesty, I suspect that what happened behind the scenes is that the science team and NOAA got with the Woods Hole folks and said, for pete’s sake guys, if you’re going to go off spouting your mouth off about big plumes that contradicts what we are saying, give us a heads up and let us get our act together before running to the media. Properly chastened, Mr. Reddy may have offered up the op-ed and worked to show collaboration that showed up in the abc report. But that is pure speculation on my part.

The point is to understand how the media works. Did they love the conflict between Woods Hole and NOAA? Absolutely. Could they get more eyes on their screens or papers this way? Absolutely. Does it fit the “melodrama” theory of today’s infotainment? Yes, it does. Does it mean the media is being irresponsible? Hmmm, I wouldn’t go that far. It’s just important for those dealing with the media to understand how they operate and be a little smarter in how they work with them. And it would be helpful if the American people were a little more sophisticated in their understanding of how the media creates conflicts and stories like this. On the other hand, given the exceptionally low trust in the media, maybe I’m not giving the American public enough credit.

Lessons from Deepwater Add Up

It’s almost impossible to keep track of all the critically important lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon spill (aka BP Spill). Since I and many in my company are involved, some of the most important ones will have to be discussed later. But a few quick notes:

Information Discipline of the JIC–NIMS compliance and the core function of the JIC calls for information discipline. That is that there be one and only one official voice for the event and that voice be fully and completely under Unified Command control. We’ve discussed here before how bad things can go when that info discipline is not followed. One tragic example was the Sago Mine incident where someone in the Command Post reported what they thought they heard from a radio about the 12 miners being rescued, directly to a family member in the church where families had gathered to pray. The families went wild with good news, the news media spread it around the world, and the Incident Commander unfortunately waited for many hours to provide the correct information. Information discipline in the Deepwater has been a challenge on many fronts, but the most visible breakdown occurred this past weekend. The NYTimes reported that scientists on board one of the research vessels identified a huge underwater plume. There was speculation about this plume, its make-up and where it might be headed as well as potential impacts. The vessel, brought into the response, was under direction of NOAA. The release of this information, potentially through a private blog of one of the researchers, has had significant impact. This kind of information absolutely needs to be verified and provided through official channels–to avoid important people being caught flatfooted. Ever since the story came out and was repeated by all major outlets, the JIC has been trying to address the highly speculative nature of the comments. A huge fear was created, potentially unnecessarily, and completely outside the control of Unified Command. Who is responsible? I understand that there are thousands of people working on this event. But each and everyone of them need to understand that only the Unified Command has the authority to release information about the event itself, the response, and the plans. Whoever brings those people in to help has a very serious obligation to get their full commitment to do so. And failure to observe this critical NIMs requirement could be and should be serious for the violators.

Another lesson–adequate preparation. One of the main stories of today, May 18, is that BP was unprepared for an event of this nature. That means that every oil company in the world may be asked if they are prepared. One elected official, quoting I think Apollo 13 stated that what we have here is a lack of imagination. Clearly, with all the worst case scenario planning, there are events of such magnitude that if they were imagined they would be considered ludicrous. It will be up to the experts to determine if this applies to this event. All I can say, having worked with many oil companies over the past ten years that there is no industry–bar none–that spends as much time and money on preparation and practicing response, is so incredibly safety conscious, creates an almost overwhelming culture of safety, than anyone else. If BP is unprepared for an event of this magnitude, the reporters looking to place the blackhat on them, ought to ask that question of every other company or agency where the unimaginable can happen.

One more comment–several analogies have emerged trying to communicate the scale of this event. In terms of media and public focus, this may be the biggest since Katrina or 9/11. In terms of the technical challenges some of the leaders have said this is more like Apollo 13 than ExxonValdez. And of course the ExxonValdez comparions are obvious. My thought–this is the Three Mile Island for the oil industry. As Three Mile Island put us hopelessly behind the rest of the world in terms of use of nuclear energy, this no doubt will have similar long term effects on the oil industry, energy independence, and the strength of our nation. Did anyone notice that a few days ago China and Nigeria announced plans for $23 billion in new oil refineries in China. I’m very concerned and quite certain where this event will lead us as a nation.