Distinctions in Covering BP Oil Spill Suggest a Maturing Press
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Important distinctions surfaced when evaluating the Gulf states individually. Florida,
Mississippi and Texas treated the story as an environmental one while Louisiana, whose
economy is dependent on both commercial fishing and the oil and gas industries, covered the oil
spill primarily as an economic one. Also giving the most coverage to economic issues were the
newspapers in Alabama, whose small coastline accounts for a third of the red snapper caught in
the Gulf of Mexico.
Environment-themed stories can also be seen as economic ones. Many of the worries
expressed in Florida newspapers, for example, about the migrating oil fouling beaches were also
concerns about the impact on tourism. However, the coverage distinctions in the five Gulf states
shows that local newspapers focused on local variations of primary interest to their readers.
Texas newspapers that wrote about the economy focused on commercial fishing because its
waters were less impacted by the oil than were those of the other Gulf states where fishing was
halted. And although the moratorium on deep-water drilling grabbed the attention of politicians,
the local newspapers focused their attention on the economic issues that held greater importance
for their readers. This focus may also explain the finding that small-circulation newspapers were
more likely to cover the spill as an economic story than were medium-sized and large-circulation
newspapers in the Gulf. Smaller newspapers can focus more intently on the issues of greatest
importance to their readers.
Conversely, the national newspapers devoted far more effort than did the Gulf papers,
collectively, on dissecting what went wrong. That attention fits the mission of the three national
papers. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans published a few investigative stories examining
how the accident occurred, which may reflect the resources available a relatively large (by Gulf
Coast standards) paper as well as its expertise in covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.