How the media covered the BP spill

A new study examines 2,900 American media stories about the Gulf oil spill disaster,
from the day of the oil rig explosion to the day after BP CEO Tony
Hayward’s departure.

The study “100 Days of Gushing Oil: Eight Things to Know About How the Media Covered the Gulf Disaster” was produced by The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan and nonpolitical fact tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Take Pew’s quiz to see how much you understand the spill.

In a press release, Pew writes:

“The media found themselves trying to report a complicated, technical and long-running disaster saga that did not break down along predictable political and ideological lines. And they were reporting to an American public that displayed a ravenous appetite for the spill story. But a study of media coverage of the oil spill from April 20 to July 28 by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that most news organizations rose to the occasion.”

The eight points raised by the Pew survey:

Oil spill leads the news agenda.

The spill was the dominant story in the mainstream news, accounting for 22% of news in the 100-day period after the exploison (almost double the next biggst story).

Events in the Gulf dominated the coverage.

The Gulf of Mexico cleanup efforts and the disaster impact was the leading storyline, accounting for 46% of coverage. The role of BP garnered 27% of coverage, while the response of the Obama Administration accounted for 17% of overall coverage.

The White House fared better than BP.

The study notes “The Obama White House generated decidedly mixed media coverage for its role in the spill saga, but questions about its role diminished over time—in part thanks to a Republican misfire. And the administration fared considerably better than BP and its CEO Tony Hayward, who on balance were portrayed as the villains of the story.”

Outside of Louisiana, there were no protagonists.

“Among the top newsmakers in this story, most of them in the federal government or working for BP, no one really emerged as a protagonist or hero in the narrative—with two exceptions. A couple of Louisiana officials were the only major characters to be portrayed in a generally positive light.”

The Gulf saga was, first and foremost, a television story.

The disaster generated the most coverage in the cable news (31%) and network news (29%) sectors.  CNN at 42% devoted “considerably more attention than MSNBC and Fox News.”

The mainstream press seemed more interested than social media.

In the blogosphere, the spill story wasn’t a popular. “But one theme that resonated throughout the online conversation was skepticism about almost all the principals in the story.”

Interactive elements helped tell the story.

The PBS NewsHour’s Oil Leak Widget monitored the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf. The New York Times site offered a video animation that helped explain how “a last ditch effort to prevent the spill failed.”

The spill got the public’s attention.

Public interest in the Gulf saga may have even exceeded the level of mainstream media coverage. According to Pew Research Centre surveys, “between 50% and 60% of Americans said they were following the story “very closely” each week during the first 100 days. That surpassed the level of public interest during the most critical moments of the health care reform debate.”