Tough to Reconcile: Rosy, Top-Down National News Vs. Realistic, Bottom-Up Local Coverage


As somebody who closely follows BP spill news, it’s been educational (to say the least) to see the stark difference between national news coverage and our local and regional stories. At times, it seems that entirely different events are being covered.

The national coverage is very much top-down, meaning folks like BP and the Coast Guard and NOAA drive the coverage from the top. But local coverage takes more of a grassroots approach, citing Gulf residents and county-level sources…and what local fishermen are actually seeing out on the water.

It makes for differences that are tough to reconcile. Just look at recent headlines. Yesterday, the New York Times ran, “Gulf May Avoid Direst Predictions After Oil Spill.” Compare that to local coverage from the Times-Picayune on the same day, “Huge fish kill reported in Plaquemines Parish,” and the day before, “New wave of oil comes ashore west of Mississippi River.”

Really? We may avoid “direst” predictions? Or would it be more appropriate, at this point, to say, “direst predictions still possible!” The NYT piece, which ran page-one in the “Science Times” section, rambles through a couple hundred words and six paragraphs before citing its first actual source – NOAA, although noting that the agency’s findings are disputed by “some.” Then we get “preliminary reports” that suggest damages might be less than the 1989 Valdez spill. Again, BP and NOAA are the sources.

As they say in the newspaper business, we’re all the way to the jump and the only named source is the discredited NOAA report. The piece has enough wiggle words – like “may,” “suggest,” “preliminary” – to give any fact-checker the day off, but the impact and message of the report is maintained…that is, this ain’t so bad.

The Times reporters eventually get busy, quoting credible scientists and environmentalists, like Professor Samantha Joye, who found oil coating the ocean floor, and chemist Wilma Subra, who works with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (disclosure: LEAN is a longtime client of mine). But each “allegation” is discounted with official-sounding “government reports” or even by people who work for BP contractors. Ms. Subra touches on the contrast we’re seeing in the media: “The government and BP continue to say it is very much improved out there, but there is still a lot of oil. Any fisherman could tell you that.”

The NYT story is a study in how the NOAA study can be massaged to discount virtually every other researcher out there – it can even seem like multiple reports if you call it a “federal study” in one reference, then a “NOAA report” in another. Never mind that NOAA was wrong about spill volumes and is wrong about this – operating, for the most part, as a BP partner.

Read the NYT piece here:

Local coverage from the Times-Picayune here:

And here:

And again, here:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2010 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • There are only 6 major news media sources in our country. This is what happens when anti-trust is ignored. These corporations are so big and their tentacles are all entertwined and into everything. The local news reports what the people see, because it’s more difficult to sell this kind of koolaid to people who actually live on the beach. The national media though, they don’t have to contend with discounting multiple, local eye witness accounts. They are counting on a short attention span, a self-absorbed audience, and a level of ignorance that would make a hill billy blush to his long john buttons.

    Out country has been groomed. And now we are almost ready to be fully fleeced by BP or any other big corporate giant that comes along and knows how to buy and utilize a few dozen high powered PR firms, multi-media attacks, and of course utilizing Homeland Security and the clause that declares BP’s industry A National Security Interest as part of Critical Infrastructure.

    The laws that were supposedly meant to protect us from terrorism are being abused in order to protect a corporate agenda.

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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