By Guest Blogger Anthony DiMaggio

A new Pew Research Center poll finds strong public support for media in its coverage of the gulf oil crisis.  Sixty-seven percent of respondents report having “a lot” or “some” confidence in “news organizations” in their reporting on the oil crisis.  This is significantly higher than those displaying “a lot” or “some” trust in government (51 percent of respondents) and British Petroleum (39 percent of respondents) in dealing with the crisis.  Public interest in the oil spill dwarfs attention to other issues.  About two thirds of Americans cite the Gulf disaster as the story they’re following most closely, and interest in this story is about seven times higher than the second most interesting issue to the public – the state of the economy (http://people-press.org/report/621/).

To the credit of the U.S. press, it has made the Gulf crisis the most salient national issue, as the story was the subject of 35 percent of all news coverage as of the week of May 31st to June 6th.  Of course, a high volume of coverage is not tantamount to high quality coverage.  Taking an alternative look at the U.S. press, there are reasons to think that coverage should have been more critical than it’s been.   Perhaps the most explosive revelation this week has been that BP deceived the American public when it claimed that there were no underwater plumes of oil in the gulf.  This claim has been disproven by scientists analyzing water samples in the region.  The concern over the plumes is of major importance, considering that they pose a fundamental threat to the survival of sea life in the short term and a potential danger to the coastline for decades.  BP officials have sought to obscure these dangers in their misinformation campaigns.  For example, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles told NBC News (on Wednesday, June 9th) that “we haven’t found any large concentrations of oil under the sea, and to my knowledge no one has.”

Suttles’ contempt for the public is startling, considering that news reports identified the existence of a number of massive underwater plumes since late May.  One plume that was identified by marine scientists from the University of South Florida stretches 22 miles from the Deep Water Horizon wellhead all the way northeast to Mobile Bay, Alabama.  That plume is reported to span from immediately beneath the surface to 3,300 feet below (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/27/gulf-oil-spill-new-plumes_n_591994.html).  Later reporting identified at least one more plume within the area of the oil spill (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/31/gulf-oil-spill-oil-plumes-underwater_n_595471.html).

The discovery of the new plumes overlaps with the time period in which the Pew poll found favorable public ratings for reporting on the oil spill.  Despite public support, reporting of the spill has generally failed to emphasize the plumes.  The table below first identifies the total number of stories mentioning the gulf “oil spill” in each newspaper and television outlet in question, then shows the number of those stories within the original sample that also reference the plumes discovered by oceanographers.  The results indicate that the plumes have received little attention.  As the “paper of record,” the NY Times barely allotted attention to the plumes, referencing them in just 10 percent of all stories referencing the oil spill.  Similar results are seen in the case of the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.

U.S. Media’s Underreporting of the

Gulf Oil Spill and Underwater Plumes

May 31st – June 6th, 2010

Reporting Containing Various Key Words NY Times:

“oil spill”

NY Times: “oil spill” & “plumes” Wash Post:

“oil spill”

Wash Post:

“oil spill” & “plumes”

LA Times:

“oil spill”

LA Times:

“oil spill” & “plumes”

# of Stories / % of
all Stories

80 / (100%)

8 (10%)

65 (100%)

7 (11%)

29 (100%)

5 (17%)

Reporting Containing Various Key Words CNN:

“oil spill”

CNN:

“oil spill” & “plumes”

MSNBC:

“oil spill”

MSNBC:

“oil spill” & “plumes”

Fox:

“oil spill”

Fox:

“oil spill” & “plumes”

# of Stories/

% of all Stories

113 (100%)

40 (35%)

14 (100%)

9 (64%)

41 (100%)

1 (2%)

The television results above are not that much more encouraging, although they do show that substantial variation exists in coverage.  Fox News’ coverage is most propagandistic, as its stories on the oil spill reference the plumes less than one percent of the time. CNN comparatively does a better job, referencing them in 35 percent of stories, although the organization doesn’t even come close to referencing a majority of the time.  MSNBC is the most impressive in its reporting, mentioning them in 64 percent of stories.  This demonstrates that reporters at Fox and CNN, in addition to journalists at the newspapers mentioned, could have done a much better job in referencing the plumes (which are arguably the most important development over the last week), and probably should have been mentioned in the majority of each organizations’ television and newspaper stories.

Those discounting the importance of the plumes should think twice.  The plumes indicate that the spill is far worse than BP executives and government officials originally led the public to believe.  Lack of public awareness of the plumes (due to media negligence in reporting them and government//BP spin) carries with it major risks.  David Hollander, Associate Professor of Chemical Oceanography at the University of Florida warns “the plume reaching waters on the continental shelf could have a toxic effect on fish larvae, and we also may see a long term response as it cascades up the food web.”  In light of government inaction in this crisis, and the media’s underreporting of the problem, the crisis appears to be far larger than originally thought.

Anthony DiMaggio is the editor of media-ocracy (www.media-ocracy.com). He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University and North Central College, and is an expert in the study of mass media and public opinion.  His recent books include: Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the War on Terror (Lexington Books, 2008), and When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and the Limits of Dissent (Monthly Review Press, 2010). He has written for various independent media, including Z Magazine, Counterpunch, Monthly Review Magazine, Alternet, Common Dreams, and Black Agenda Report. He can be reached at: mediaocracy@gmail.com