Thursday, July 29, 2010

Media Coverage of Spill Moving Into New Phase

It's been fascinating and often disheartening to watch media coverage throughout the Gulf Spill (again full disclosure for those who may be new to Crisis Comm blog--both US Coast Guard and BP are long time clients). The harshness, negativity, blackhat stories and conspiracy theories have been rampant, along with some outstanding and very enlightening coverage of what is going on. But there have been definite phases of coverage that reveal how long duration events such like this play out in the news media and how the news media itself works.

Today the story is changing dramatically. Where in the past, particularly in early to mid-June when coverage was at its peak, most major blogs and news outlets were competing on how bad they could make it and how evil those behind the spill or failures in the response were. That story line is suddenly shifting. A few relevant examples:

Spill Vanishing. It seems things started turning with this story from NYT, one of the mainstream who did the most to exaggerate the damage (remember the inaccurate report of the huge underwater plume?)

BP Spill Damage Exaggerated. Time Magazine even goes so far as to suggest Rush Limbaugh might have been right.

Yes, but who is to blame for the exaggeration, and who gains from it?
The Telegraphic in UK takes this one on. Conspiracy theories are never far behind, even when the story changes from "it's horrible" to "someone screwed up by saying it was horrible."

BP looking better. The Wall Street Journal noticed that things were looking better for BP in all of this and made an article of it.

Maybe it's not their fault. Amid all this is mounting speculation that the blame for this may fall on others.

Maybe it won't matter as much as we thought. Then there is this one from AP suggesting that previous spills may have greater impact on society and legislation.

Don't get me wrong. BP's reputation will be impacted by this for my lifetime anyway, and chances are most of those who may be reading this. The important thing for emergency managers interested in how these things play out in the media and public opinion is to understand what is going on here and why.

A few comments that may help better understand this change as well as coverage thr0ughout this event.

1) Every day the war starts anew. By the war I mean the battle that every publisher and editor faces--how do I get eyes on my screen or paper today? More than that, how do I steal eyes from my millions of competitors? So every day something new has to be created. The story in the Gulf isn't changing much. Bummer for the media. So something has to be new, something has to change and that means that new angles, stories and trends have to be created if not simply uncovered.

2) Good guys don't win wars. By that I mean, good news stories have a hard time in the tough competition for eyes, ears and minds. That's why the blame game exists. Put a black hat on someone and eyes will turn. Hey--I found the guy to blame for all this--and suddenly people will pay attention. Time even put a list of the top twelve candidates to blame. So, now there is good news about the spill--it is vanishing and the damage may not be as great as we thought. So who should be blame for their being good news? It's like they can't help themselves.

3) If you don't like the weather now, hang around for a minute. Sort of like the weather in Denver, media coverage is always changing. (See point one). That means you have to have some patience. It's been understood about celebrity coverage for some time that the media loves to build someone up into some kind of godlike being, and then loves even more to tear them down to human size, or lower. The same is true of events, companies, government agencies, etc. Why? See point two.

4) The herd mentality. In most major stories, there emerges what might be called a meta-narrative. In Katrina it was simple--the feds let us down, particularly President Bush. That story was repeated ad nauseum despite the basic underlying truth that until Katrina, FEMA was never seen or understood as a response organization. The meta-narrative of this spill has been BP is a big evil foreign company that caused the spill and is failing to fix it. Well, half the shareholders are American. Investigation will show the causes. Failure to fix it was true due to the incredible technical challenges. Failure or slowness in paying claims has been essentially untrue and completely exaggerated. But that was the story line and probably 90% of America believes it because it was repeated so often. Now, we may see the story line changing and the herd is following. It seems contradictory that media need a new story and angle every day and then to see such "me too" coverage. But no one seems to want to try and challenge the meta-narrative. So the new angles tend to be minor issues supporting that big overwhelming story, with few if any, challenging the underlying truth of the big story.

I can't wait to see the news tomorrow. "Claims the spill was exaggerated are exaggerated--and we know who to blame!"

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