Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Huh? Using Anonymous And Dubious Sources, NYT Wonders Whether Gulf Of Mexico Oil Spill Is Really That Bad.

A bizarre page-one news analysis about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill today asserts that the damage isn't going to be as bad as you think -- and lamely attempts to prove its point with anonymous sources, and experts with ties to the oil industry itself.

Under the headline Bad? But An Apocalypse?, reporters John M. Broder and Tom Zeller Jr. attempt to put recent events in historical perspective, reminding us of the damage wreaked by such memorable spills as the Exxon Valdez in 1989 or the Ixtoc 1 in 1979, which dumped 140 million gallons of crude oil.

After quoting President Obama's assertion that the spill is "potentially unprecedented," the reporters counter with several unprovable assertions designed to suggest that the president's concerns may be misplaced -- a view presumably shared by the corporate interests charged with cleaning up the horrific mess they made.

"Yet the Deepwater Horizon blowout is not unprecedented," the reporters assert without explanation or attribution, "nor is it yet among the worst oil accidents in history."

How does the NYT know this? An expert told them! Which expert? Oh, you know...an unnamed expert!

And to add to the problem, it's an unnamed expert who speaks in meaningless metaphors -- and is allowed to do so in the story's fifth paragraph, right there on the front page of the NYT:

"As one expert put it," Broder and Zeller write, "this is the first inning of a nine-inning game. No one knows the final score."

Yikes! Let's just hope our team wins, and the game doesn't go into extra innings.

To be sure, Broder and Zeller take note of those who worry that this latest spill may hurt the region's land areas and wildlife.

"No one," the reporters declare, "not even the oil industry's most fervent apologists, is making light of this accident." What a relief to know that BP executives haven't started regaling themselves with oil slick jokes!

But the news analysis moves quickly to quote experts who suggest that favorable wind conditions mean "the worst could be avoided."

The NYT turns next for a quote to Edward B. Overton, professor emeritus of environmental science at Louisiana State, who compares this spill favorably with the Exxon Valdez:

“Right now what people are fearing has not materialize. People have the idea of an Exxon Valdez, with a gunky, smelly black tide looming over the horizon waiting to wash ashore. I do not anticipate this will happen down here unless things get a lot worse.”

But Overton has been quoted elsewhere in the media making the opposite statement -- arguing that this spill has been among the most devastating in history. Specifically, Overton has warned that based on early analysis, the spill could include a "heavy crude" oil potentially devestating to the environment of the region.

From the Los Angeles Times on May 1, just three days ago:

The analysis is based on only a single sample, "but it has caused my level of apprehension to go way up," said environmental scientist Edward B. Overton of Louisiana State University, who is analyzing the oil for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. So far, he appears to be the only researcher who thinks there may be a bigger-than-expected problem with the oil.

"We're hoping and praying that it is Louisiana sweet crude," Overton added, but if it is not…this is going to be a very unique spill. We have never seen a spill with this high an asphaltenic content."

Why is the NYT now quoting Overton making the opposite point?

The NYT story goes on to says that "while the potential for catastrophe remained, there were reasons to remain guardedly optimistic."

To support that point, the reporters deliver the ultimate cliche quote -- and from an expert with direct, though undisclosed, ties to the oil industry itself.

"The sky isn't falling," Quenton R. Dokken, executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, told the NYT. "We've certainly stepped in a hole and we're going to have to work ourselves out of it, but it isn't the end of the Gulf of Mexico."

The "Gulf Of Mexico Foundation," in case you were wondering, is a nonprofit organization supported largely by grants from the oil companies themselves. Most of the members of its board of directors are executives at the oil companies.

Currently on the foundation's board of directors: Dr. Ian Hudson, head of corporate responsibility at Transocean, the offshore drilling contractor that owned the Deepwater Horizon. That's the rig that exploded last month, leading to the spill.

Of course, this doesn't officially taint Dokken's quotes. But as an executive whose fortunes are tied to partnerships between his group and the oil and gas companies that fund it -- including BP, ConocoPhillips, Marathon, etc. -- he's hardly an objective observer of corporate malfeasance.

It isn't until well into the second half of the news anaylysis that Zeller and Broder get around to interviewing those who think the sky may, in fact, be falling after all.

“Some people are saying, It hasn’t gotten to shore yet so it’s all good," said Jacueline Savitz, a senior scientist at Oceana, a respected nonprofit environmental group with no ties to industry. “But a lot of animals live in the ocean, and a spill like this becomes bad for marine life as soon as it hits the water. You have endangered sea turtles, the larvae of bluefin tuna, shrimp and crabs and oysters, grouper. A lot of these are already being affected and have been for 10 days. We’re waiting to see how bad it is at the shore, but we may never fully understand the full impacts on ocean life.”

Sounds pretty horrible to us!

Why would the NYT feel compelled to present an essentially pro-industry story on its front page, so soon after the spill and the public outcry over its effects? It's hard to know.

But it's easy to see that whatever its intentions, the story failed on its most basic task of providing informative, objective and on-the-record quotes to readers, and letting them make the best possible judgement based on the facts.

UPDATE: A NYT Editors' Note Wednesday morning acknowledges that yesterday's page-one news analysis of the Gulf oil spill should have made clear that one of the sources it quoted -- who told the NYT "the sky isn't falling" with regard to the spill -- works for an organization with strong ties to the oil industry.

Those industry connections were first reported yesterday morning by The NYTPicker.

The story, by reporters John M. Broder and Tom Zeller Jr., quoted Quenton R. Dokken, executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, as an objective expert on the crisis in the Gulf.

But as The NYTPicker noted yesterday, the foundation includes several industry leaders on its board, including an official at Transocean -- the offshore drilling contractor that owned the Deepwater Horizon, the rig that exploded last month, leading to the spill.

Here's the full text of the Editors' Note:

A front-page news analysis article on Tuesday discussed the uncertainty over the ultimate environmental impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One expert quoted was Quenton R. Dokken, a marine biologist who is the executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation. (He said the spill “isn’t the end of the Gulf of Mexico,” but also said that “we’ve always got to ask ourselves how long can we keep heaping these insults on the gulf and having it bounce back.”)

The article described the Gulf of Mexico Foundation simply as a conservation group. It should have included more information about the organization, a nonprofit group that says its mission is “to promote and facilitate conservation of the health and productivity of the Gulf of Mexico and its resources” through research and other programs. While the group says the majority of its funding comes from federal and state grants, it also receives some money from the oil industry and other business interests in the gulf, and includes industry executives on its board.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to NYTPIck NYTPicker, but it's "devastating" not "devestating". Well, you got it right once in the same paragraph in which the misspelling occurs; however, I thought NYTChecker software would have caught it. (As I write this, the offending word is underlined with a bright red dotted line).

Roberto said...

"Why would the NYT feel compelled to present an essentially pro-industry story on its front page, so soon after the spill and the public outcry over its effects? It's hard to know."

Good question. [Wonder what the haters will offer up ... aside from nitpicking spellchecks.]

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU. Couldn't believe my eyes when I read this yesterday.

Anonymous said...


What a great blog. I found it trying to track down info on the LSU professor. Keep up the great work.

Anonymous said...

Knock it out, you're ruining my lunch. How much to remove the pic of suffocating birdie, huh? Name your price.

Lorin said...

you think that article's bad? Check out today's blog piece "Waiting for the Oil Spill to Reach the dinner Table" for "sources." My favorite is this paragraph:

"Paradoxically, next month had been set for the kickoff of both the New Orleans Oyster Festival and the Louisiana Seafood Festival. Int he Crescent City, 'I know just how much this disaster is going to sting,' said Mr. Brown, who once cooked in Begue’s Restaurant on Bourbon Street. Seafood 'is a huge part of not only the economics, but the culture of New Orleans.'"

Terence said...

And now the story about the Gulf oil catastrophe has disappeared off the front page of the internet edition. To make room, I presume, for the Tony nominations.

Frolic said...

Sounds more like a Slate article.

I emailed the paper recently about a story that called both the post-Katrina crisis and the oil spill a "natural disaster." The standards editor refused to address the characterization of the oil spill, but he did have a snotty comment for people suffered in 2005:


Anonymous said...

The Times coverage of this story is despicable. My guess is that Pinch laid down the parameters of debate and announced he would brook no deviance.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to disagree with the common wisdom here, but I think the concept for of the analysis was OK but the legwork was poor. I don't find anything wrong with trying to put the spill into some sort of immediate perspective, given the apocalyptic nature of many stories in recent days. However, the use of unidentified sources in a non-national security piece, as well as industry-influenced spokesmen, cuts the underpinnings out from the thrust. Too bad. I like being reminded of similar events that, even though within the last decades or so, have already receded from the common knowledge bank.

jansvec said...

My sentiments also. In addition: This is not a limited "spill" from a tanker as the captions on page A17 suggest, this is a "blowout"- i.e. a gusher from an uncapped well connected to an oil reservoir under high pressure (see e.g.Wikipedia); The quote about gunky black tides from Overton was probably outdated well before publication but was used anyway. And why was the 2009 West Atlas oil rig "spill" off the Australian coast not mentioned?
Also I somehow don't see how coming in second to Valdez in terms of number of gallons dumped into the oceans would somehow make things better.

Anonymous said...

The question that matters most is Will the oil invade the tidal marshes, wetlands and coastal zones. At that point we're into a industrial calamity with chernobyl overtones. Capping the gusher with concrete, cleaning up the worst, evacuating residents, and dealing with the cancer and diseases sure to follow.

Guava said...

Your views on this topic are really interesting and give a clear cut view. Thanks for sharing the knowledge!

Anonymous said...

Thank you thank you thank you. I was beginning to think I'd lost my mind.