Monday, September 6, 2010

Reporting Oil: Pride, Spin, and a Little Prejudice


In early June, oil began washing ashore along the Louisiana coast, and photographers got the shot they were looking for: the oiled bird. I would never belittle the tragedy of the thousands of birds devastated by the oil, nor would I demean the value of such images for raising awareness.

What I do take issue with is the fact that this is THE image, THE pelican that my mind will forever associate with this tragedy. I have found myself wondering why this image (aside from the obvious) stuck with me. Then I realized the obvious: I remember this image because it was the only one I ever saw.

I wasn't there that day, so I can only speculate as to the reasons for this singular depiction of oiled wildlife. Nonetheless, I imagine that on June 3rd or 4th, BP realized that it would have to give some semblance of access to the media. Having secured the areas nearest the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the company hired private contractors to guard the most devastated areas, to keep the press out. But, the story was too big to fully contain. A press conference was called, the beach opened for an hour, and all major news outlets got the images they needed for the evening news.

This press conference accomplished two things: it made a single pelican famous, and it contained the story; it made the press manageable and compliant. Like embedded reporters in Iraq, journalists in the Gulf must become complicit to "get" the story.

BP has made every effort to control this story. Early on, the company came under fire for blocking access to beaches, digitally altering photographs to make clean up efforts appear more vigorous, and creating an unofficial no-fly zone over oiled areas. In this video, a local reporter is denied access to Grand Isle:

There is no great secret here. From the beginning, this story has been one of spin. BP tripled its advertising budget to $100 million following the spill. Meanwhile, the company moved sluggishly to pay claims to unemployed fisherman throughout the Gulf. But, be not confused, BP will "make things right." The new ad campaign is entitled Making It Right and features Louisiana natives promising fellow citizens that they will be there "until the job is done."

The Wildlife: Making Things Right video features images of birds and turtles being cleaned, set to soothing spa music. The real scene at Hammond Oiled Wildlife Center in Louisiana featured amazingly dedicated workers who genuinely cared for the animals being treated, but no relaxing music. Industrial-sized fans blew hot humid air around while journalists were herded from room to room, scene to scene.

It's important that we see the process cleaning wildlife. It's also important that BP convey to the press that it's living up to its obligations. To many questions, one of the guides on the tour gave canned responses--exact quotes that I'd previously heard on commercials: "BP has made a commitment to be here until the job is done." I don't blame her; that's part of her job. But, if we cannot hear the full story, the real can we know the whole story?

Without getting too philosophical here, I would venture to say that there is no such thing as absolute truth...especially in our modern context. However, is it too much to ask that the press be something more than a false limb to the PR machinery of multi-national corporations?

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Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.
- Oscar Wilde


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