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Home > Publications > Quill > Covering the Spill


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Monday, August 16, 2010
Covering the Spill

How reporters are responding to one of the biggest environmental disasters in U.S. history

By April Dudash

Brian Schwaner was at home asleep when the phone rang at 3 a.m. The Associated Press Atlanta regional desk was keeping tabs on breaking news, and they were informed in a very “cryptic” Coast Guard message that there had been an explosion on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig. At first, no one was sure if this was going to be a big story.

In pictures: Covering the Spill
Click on each thumbnail to see the full image with caption.





Schwaner serves AP as Louisiana and Mississippi news editor. Originally from New Orleans, he has watched his hometown deal with widespread devastation before: Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Hurricanes come through, tear up lives and then vanish. But with the oil spill, it’s different.

Four months later, people have no idea when the oil is going to be gone.

Covering the spill has been heart-wrenching, Schwaner said, whether it’s having to witness the environmental impact firsthand or the trauma that Gulf families are going through. He compared the situation to throwing a “hand grenade” into their way of life.

“It’s human within us all, when you look out at a bay and see it full of oil and ask, ‘Why isn’t anybody there to clean it up?’ there is an impatience. There is an anger,” he said.

As the impact of the Deepwater Horizon explosion widened, so did AP’s coverage. They have daily oil spill meetings, conference calls and phone calls. AP staff from all over the world are involved in these discussions, and they work to spot trends and patterns their reporters need to follow.

The AP oil spill reporting force includes environmental, legal affairs and business teams. In addition to coastal state staff, AP reporters from South Carolina, California and Georgia have visited Louisiana. The AP’s London bureau regularly contributes with BP stories. AP also has appointed an oil spill editor, Steve Gutkin, to orchestrate the coverage.

But that’s an international media operation. Closer to home, The Times-Picayune in New Orleans is working nonstop on their spill coverage, even if they have struggled to find manpower. The paper went through buyouts last December, which included the oil industry reporter. Once the spill started, they had to reassign members of their newsroom.

“The editors looked around the room and played ‘tag, you’re it’ with reporters,” said Mark Schleifstein, Times-Picayune hurricane and environment reporter.

Out of a total staff of about 160, five Times-Picayune reporters cover the oil spill full-time. Two cover it part-time and a few others fill in where they’re needed. Two photographers also cover the spill full-time.

“The first month or so was extremely frustrating because we were right back in Katrina mode working around the clock on this,” Schleifstein said, “not knowing what the effects would be, when the oil would come onshore, how long it would last. Some reporters have been working on this for weeks with no break.”

Even though New Orleans is about 100 miles away from highly impacted shoreline, oil has managed its way into local bodies of water.

“From time to time, you can smell it in the city,” he said.

Matthew Lysiak with the New York Daily News got the opportunity to visit Grand Isle, La., and he said the mood in the coastal state is one full of dread. People feel the spill will morph into a never-ending problem.

“I keep in touch with people down there still,” Lysiak said. “The people I speak to, they seem remarkably pessimistic about the future.”

On Elmer’s Island, which is part of Grand Isle, the oil coming onshore was visibly ruining the fragile ecosystem, he said. Cleanup workers could be there for years, and there’s no way to tell how devastating this is going to be for years to come.

Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland is also familiar with Louisiana. She lived there during Katrina, and watching the oil take its toll has been difficult. She has had to keep her emotions in check.

“It’s kind of like the oil. It comes and goes,” McClelland said. “Sometimes you get overwhelmed and don’t really want to deal with it, and other times you get so immersed in work.”

KEEPING THE STORY AFLOAT

Once the gushing oil well in the Gulf was capped July 15, reporters realized they just took on a different set of challenges: researching the long-term effects and making sure those effects aren’t forgotten by the public.

There’s a potential for coverage to dwindle once physical evidence of the spill, such as oil showing up on shorelines, begins to vanish, Schleifstein said.

This cannot be a forgotten story, said Christy George, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Before the rig went down in the Gulf, SEJ was still discussing the impact of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill that, according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, dumped about 11 million gallons of oil off the shores of Alaska.

By comparison, the Deepwater Horizon spill pumped about 174 million gallons of oil into Gulf waters, according to AP’s numbers.

“It takes a long time to know what the environmental impacts are sometimes,” George said. “Sometimes the story itself goes on for decades, and this is certainly a case where that’s true. The trick is keeping it alive for the public.”

ISSUES WITH ACCESS

As oil first made its way onto Louisiana shores at the beginning of May, some reporters and photographers attempting to visit affected beaches were denied access.

The Times-Picayune had issues at the beginning of the spill when a sheriff’s deputy attempted to block their photographer from Louisiana’s Fourchon Beach due to safety reasons. The Times-Picayune wasn’t the only media outlet denied access, Schleifstein said.

“A lot of those problems have disappeared over time as we and other news organizations have complained,” he said.

AP’s Schwaner said there were times their journalists were chased away from beaches by security guards, and they weren’t even sure who the guards worked for.

“A good reporter will find a way to source with people who do have access to an area or to talk with those who have been to areas,” he said. “You have to work it harder. You have to make sure your source is trustworthy or figure out how to discreetly go places you can’t go.”

One access issue that sparked media outrage was the attempt to keep the public (including media) 65 feet from the boom and booming operations. The Coast Guard enacted the 65-foot safety zone June 30, and violators could be punished with a $40,000 civil penalty or a felony.

“The most egregious was keeping us away from the oil boom,” Schwaner said. “It was absurd.”

Once several people, including CNN’s Anderson Cooper, complained, the safety zone was lifted July 12 for members of the media.

"I have put out a direction that the press are to have clear, unfettered access to this event, with two exceptions – if there is a safety or security concern," National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen stated in a news release from the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center.

BP spokesman George Gigicos with the Mobile, Ala. Unified Command Center said BP from the very beginning has had a transparency policy and encouraged anyone involved with the response to talk with the press.

“They just couldn’t speak on behalf of BP,” Gigicos said. “There are so many contractors here that a lot of times a contractor would tell their employees that they could not talk to the press, but that is not our policy.”

As far as beach access goes, some beaches were so contaminated with oil, like Fourchon Beach in Louisiana, that BP couldn’t give the press free reign in those areas, Gigicos said.

“We just can’t have all those people on the beaches when we have all those workers on the beach trying to clean it up,” he said.

In those cases, reporters were given tours by local parish (county) officials at scheduled times during the day. BP also has scheduled flyovers, visits to the spill site and boat rides.

“If anybody’s ever had a problem getting onto a beach, I’d like to know about it,” Gigicos said. “We’ve been more than transparent from day one.”

Another challenge journalists say they have faced is not getting their questions answered during daily conference calls and press briefings presented by the Joint Information Center.

Many people participate in the calls, which are generally limited to 30 minutes, Schleifstein said.

George with the Society of Environmental Journalists has heard from a dozen members who have had access issues while covering the spill. Those who freelance or work for a smaller media outlet felt “ignored” while covering the oil spill from afar, she said.

“Your question is not going to be taken (on a conference call),” George said. “They’re only going to answer the entities that they know and have known for years.”

And that’s particularly tough when SEJ has seen an alarming trend over the past few years: many of its members have crossed the line from newspaper staffer to freelancer. Out of SEJ’s 1,456 members, 244 identify themselves as working for a newspaper and 387 identify themselves as freelancers.

Lysiak with the New York Daily News said if reporters don’t question the access issues they encounter, the whole country is running blind.

Looking back at his two weeks in Louisiana, he said he almost wishes he stood up to the BP officials and police officers who blocked him and a photographer from entering a public beach. Police told him he would be arrested if he didn’t leave, and Lysiak was irate.

“If I’m arrested on my first day of being there, that’s not good because I would not be able to do anything,” he said. “It just took a lot of patience, finding the BP contractor to take us out.”

The BP contractor believed BP was trying to cover up the damage, and the contractor took them on a tour around the beginning of June, pointed out a dead, oiled dolphin and said, “I’m going to show you what BP never showed the president.”

“We had to hide down in the boat,” Lysiak said. “He couldn’t let anybody see us, and these were public waters. BP was 100 percent trying to limit our ability to effectively do our job.”

Mother Jones’ McClelland also traveled around Grand Isle, and she said reporters have had to make up for a lack of government oversight in regard to the oil spill recovery efforts.

When she received a press release from the Coast Guard that stated 24,000 responders were assisting in cleaning up the spill, she wanted to know how the Coast Guard tallied that number.

The Coast Guard told her they didn’t know and had received the numbers from BP, McClelland said.

“It took a reporter on the couch to call?” she asked. “I find that quite frankly incredibly alarming.”

She said while covering the spill in Louisiana, her access issues have been pretty consistent. The same roads are blocked off and she’s getting kicked off the same beaches.

“A lot of the story has become about media access,” McClelland said. “Because we’re all getting so much shit, we all end up writing stories about media access. It’s a huge distraction to what’s actually going on.”

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