Remember the old Aesop fable of crying “Wolf!” Shout an alarm a few too many times when there is no reason for it and pretty soon, no one will believe you. That’s pretty much common sense. But, the news media today, in their desperate attempts to attract audiences are exaggerating, embellishing, emotionalizing and over-hyping the stories they cover all the time.
The 2010 gulf oil spill is certainly proving to be one more of those instances where we can clearly show that the media did us and themselves no favors in how they covered the story. There were experts I heard from in the first few days of the spill, when it was still believed to be major but not catastrophic that about 60% of this kind of crude would evaporate, and microbes would eat much of the rest. I don’t recall any of those experts being interviewed. Instead, when then CEO Tony Hayward tried to create some perspective even when it was clear that the amount spilled was huge, he was pilloried in the press by attempting to diminish the impact. He wasn’t really, just speaking the truth. But, an important lesson here for others is don’t speak the truth in the height of an event like this if the press can use it to discredit you for attempting to minimize the event. They do not take well to anyone–even someone in the know–who contradicts their efforts to proclaim the highest level of doom and gloom.
Now, of course, the reality is hard to deny. Take this quotation from a New York Post article published this weekend: But it’s now clear that, as Dr. Judy McDowell of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute told this page last August, “The oil spill [has] definitely [been] blown out of proportion.”
But even in this article, appropriately titled “Apocalypse Not” the New York Post blames the over-hyping on the “greenies.” Here’s their opening to the article: So much for the environmental Apocalypse of 2010, or whatever it was that the greenies took to calling last April’s Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill.
I haven’t gone back to check what the New York Post’s coverage looked like during the event, even in August when Dr. McDowell made her statement. But, what I observed during the event is that all the media walked in lock-step on the meta-narrative as to how desperately bad the situation was and how desperately evil a company BP is. That still is very much the common public perception, despite a quiet article or two like this one to help correct the record.
What is most disheartening to me in all this is that during the event, according to the Pew Research on the media coverage, the public was overall quite satisfied with the coverage. I have a hard time squaring that response with the overall trust in the media which is at an all-time low and lower even than Big Oil. How can the public be both satisfied with their reporting and believe they can’t be trusted?
I want to see media coverage improve, no question about that. I’ll blog soon about an excellent book on this topic called “What is Happening to News” by Jack Fuller, former publisher of Chicago Tribune. Given his analysis I’m not sure I see a lot of hope for major outlets to improve. Yet, I see signs of hope–for example, The Economist does an outstanding job of news coverage and news analysis in an in-depth, responsible way, and last I saw their numbers were increasing substantially in the US. They are also keeping up with the the times in terms of iphone and ipad apps–I now read my Economist on my ipad about as much as I read the paper magazine.
The way for media to improve, however is not by haranguing the media as I am wont to do here. It is by educating the public about the nature of news coverage and what can be expected from them–particularly cable news which is in my mind nearly the worst culprit in the kind of sensationalized, over emotionalized coverage. The most effective way of influencing the style of coverage is through consumer choice.
With that in mind, go back and see what news media you were using during the big spill and square that up with the real story that is now finally emerging. If all you saw from your favorite outlet was hype, more hype and fear-mongering, choose a different channel. Only then will we get the journalism we need for our nation, world and communities to work well.