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Distinctions in Covering BP Oil Spill Suggest a Maturing Press
Unformatted Document Text:  The different emphases between the Gulf region and the nation extended to what stories made the front page as well as how sources were used. Gulf papers were more likely to place environment stories on the front page than stories examining other facets of the spill – just as the three national papers were more likely to place stories about the event and what went wrong on the front page. In terms of sources, people affiliated with educational institutions were used by the Gulf papers for environmental stories and by national papers for event stories. The same pattern emerged for government sources and people explicitly named as scientists. The consistent use of sources affirms observations that journalists choose to quote people who fit a preordained purpose. 50 Perhaps most important, the findings show the press appears to be more sophisticated than the assessments published two decades ago by scholars such as Wilkins and Smith lamenting the rather narrow focus of journalists covering environmental disasters. Despite economic difficulties that have decimated newsrooms across the country, the 51 newspapers examined in this study did not, on the whole, fall into old patterns of focusing on scoundrels and overlooking situational factors. To be sure, BP was identified from the start as a villain, and the technological complexity of drilling for oil under enormous pressure starting on the seabed a mile beneath the ocean’s surface and continuing for another 2.5 miles until reaching petroleum, means the entire story behind the accident 51 or where the oil went 52 may not be known for some time. Further, the distinctions in coverage identified by this study may reflect the parochial interests of each state. Yet the nuances in the coverage reveal a press that may have learned from its earlier shortcomings and matured in its coverage of environmental disasters. Future research could examine that issue head-on, and determine how often and under what circumstances coverage examined the larger issues surrounding the spill. Because the

Authors: Lewis, Norman., Starr, Walter., Takata, Yukari. and Xie, Qinwei (Vivi).
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The different emphases between the Gulf region and the nation extended to what stories 
made the front page as well as how sources were used. Gulf papers were more likely to place 
environment stories on the front page than stories examining other facets of the spill – just as the 
three national papers were more likely to place stories about the event and what went wrong on 
the front page. In terms of sources, people affiliated with educational institutions were used by 
the Gulf papers for environmental stories and by national papers for event stories. The same 
pattern emerged for government sources and people explicitly named as scientists. The 
consistent use of sources affirms observations that journalists choose to quote people who fit a 
preordained purpose.
Perhaps most important, the findings show the press appears to be more sophisticated 
than the assessments published two decades ago by scholars such as Wilkins and Smith 
lamenting the rather narrow focus of journalists covering environmental disasters. Despite 
economic difficulties that have decimated newsrooms across the country, the 51 newspapers 
examined in this study did not, on the whole, fall into old patterns of focusing on scoundrels and 
overlooking situational factors. To be sure, BP was identified from the start as a villain, and the 
technological complexity of drilling for oil under enormous pressure starting on the seabed a 
mile beneath the ocean’s surface and continuing for another 2.5 miles until reaching petroleum, 
means the entire story behind the accident
 or where the oil went
 may not be known for some 
time. Further, the distinctions in coverage identified by this study may reflect the parochial 
interests of each state. Yet the nuances in the coverage reveal a press that may have learned from 
its earlier shortcomings and matured in its coverage of environmental disasters. 
Future research could examine that issue head-on, and determine how often and under 
what circumstances coverage examined the larger issues surrounding the spill. Because the 


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