With Oil Spills, Size Matters

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Sometime in May, an oil pipeline operated by Shell Oil began leaking into the Gulf of Mexico, about 100 miles south of the Louisiana coast. It was first reported on Thursday, May 12, but the start date of the actual spill is still unknown; in fact, it was a passing helicopter pilot who noticed the 13-mile-wide oil sheen from the air and called it in.

Shell estimated that about 88,000 gallons had been spilled into the Gulf in total. The company released a statement that read in typical, covering-their-ass format assuring that cleanup efforts were underway and safety for the people involved remained a primary concern, all the while downplaying the severity of the environmental damage.

With such a large spill that almost went undetected, the question begs: where was the media during all of this?

NBC News dedicated a scant 188 words to the story. Huffington Post provided sound reporting and solid facts, but barely more than 300 words of their own. As for video, the only report from any news source you might have heard of came from ABC affiliate WFTS Tampa Bay, which provided a quick 30-second mapping of the spill along with a few images.

Typing the key words “Shell Oil Spill” into Google’s search bar will populate a list of options for various years. Complete the phrase with “2016,” however, and you’ll notice almost no updates have been posted on the story since the initial reporting in mid-May. On the first page, there are plenty of results linking to environmentally- focused websites like EcoWatch and ThinkProgress, but major American media outlets are noticeably absent.

Despite the staggering size of the spill (90,000 gallons is no small leak), Greenpeace Senior Research Specialist Tim Donaghy says this kind of event isn’t exactly out of the ordinary.

“Since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, there have been around 10,000 small spills in the Gulf,” he tells BTRtoday. “Most of them are small—a couple gallons here, a couple gallons there. Some of them are medium-sized, like this Shell one. But it’s just business as usual. Whenever there’s oil drilling, there’s oil spilling.”

The issues that these spills pose to the environment and wildlife in the afflicted areas are both numerous and obvious, but given the general lack of media coverage on the overwhelming majority of them, the spills go unnoticed.

“There was a quote from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that said at any given time, they’re responding to about a dozen different spills in the Gulf of Mexico,” Donaghy says.

“It’s only the big ones that get media attention. Maybe they’ll get some local attention if they’re close to shore, but for a lot of the media it’s out of sight, out of mind.”

Donaghy posits that media companies relegate these oil spills to the back burner because of their slow moving nature.

“It’s one of those stories, and I think there are a lot of stories like this, where it’s not as dramatic,” Donaghy says. “It’s not a crisis. It’s not something happening in a small amount of time. It’s a hugely important thing that’s happening slowly over a larger period of time, and it’s more difficult for the media to focus on it. They have to devote resources to it, they have to do research, they have to visit the area.”

The counterexample that proves Donaghy’s point is the aforementioned 2010 BP spill. That was caused by an explosion which killed 49 people on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform and created an 87-day leak that released more than 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. The story dominated the media for more than three months–so much so that BP actually tried to stifle the flow of news reports surrounding the spill.

Running concurrent with the BP spill was the relatively unknown Taylor Gulf leak, which has been releasing a steady drip of oil into the Gulf of Mexico since 2004. It pales in comparison to the size, scope, and disastrous nature of Deepwater Horizon, but was actually discovered via satellite image in the aftermath of the BP spill—meaning it leaked oil into the Gulf, completely unnoticed for six years, and still is.

Taylor Energy, the company responsible, has chalked up the instance to an “act of God,” while regulators have eased up on their monitoring of the 12-year-old leak. All of this, of course, occurred without any discernible major media coverage.

Even with the amount of effort required to cover this kind of story, or any of the pervasive, small spills in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s nonetheless concerning when the media has doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on election coverage in the year of Trump. A recent survey found that just six percent of Americans have strong confidence in mass media, and more than 60 percent simply don’t trust it.

Those results have as much to do with major news organizations’ overt political slants as they do with full reports on issues like oil spills, but it’s still alarming. The fact that mass media can largely ignore such a critical, expanding environmental issue might signal that it can ignore just about anything it wants. That’s not to exonerate media consumers for our short attention spans and tendency to stop and listen to shocking content, but when just six corporations control 90 percent of the media in the United States, a good portion of the onus is on content creators and distributors.

Because of selective coverage, activist groups like Greenpeace that rely on media conveyance can be easily drowned out. Currently, Greenpeace and other organizations are moving to limit future lease sales to companies for oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. Though he’s not positive why the media doesn’t pay more attention, Donaghy is sure that if more people knew about the ubiquity of this issue, they’d act to do the same.

“Any time you can provide new information or communicate it in a way that educates the public, that’s really helpful,” he says. “People understand that this is not good, so when they learn about it, they move to act and do something about it.”