By Tashika Varma…
Most journeys revolve around a central goal or aim. That was the case in a recent journey involving a group of 12 students and one professor from Southern Methodist University. We set out for the Gulf coast to examine the communication lessons learned from the worst environmental disaster in United States history — the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But during our 10-day trip, this group of communication students learned much more than we expected.
For me, the most startling eye-opener is that journalists today aren’t necessarily the arbiters of truth, and we should question what we read, see and hear in the media. That may not seem like breaking news, but for me, a journalism student, having an opportunity to see how this played out in the coverage of the BP oil spill, rather than just hearing it in a classroom, made that lesson real.
Our journey began in New Orleans with a meeting with Mark Schleifstein, an award-winning investigative journalist at The New Orleans Times- Picayune. He was the first to touch upon this issue. He emphasized that building credibility and developing relationships is more important than being the first to break a story. Schleifstein himself has broken many significant stories in his career, and is considered among the most respected environmental issues reporters. To maintain that reputation, he says he resists knee-jerk reporting, instead investing time in research, keeping an open mind, using reliable resources and double-checking facts, rather than rushing a story to print in an effort to be first.
This journalistic zeal to be first was a big problem during the oil spill, according to Herb Malone, president of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. He explained that in today’s fast-paced 24/7 news world, often led by Internet and social media, journalism has become extremely competitive, and extremely reckless.
“Journalists care more about getting the story out first, than getting it right,” Malone commented in his Gulf Shores office. They do less fact checking and put out more inaccurate stories. Malone explained how mistakes in the coverage of the BP oil spill created devastating backlash in Gulf Shores, and other beach communities whose economies depend on tourism.
“The disaster didn’t begin when the oil hit the beaches in Gulf Shores around June 4. It began with the inaccurate media coverage,” Malone said, holding up a copy of a local paper, the Press-Register, whose headline warned that oil would hit their beaches that week. The oil didn’t hit until over a month later in Gulf Shores. As soon as this news hit, tourism plummeted. People called in cancelling hotel and beach house reservations. All local businesses suffer in the process.
Malone decided to combat the local news by putting all information in videos, advertisements, websites and campaigns. He decided from the beginning they would present only honest information. And when the oil finally arrived on the beaches of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, his office told the unvarnished truth. “We don’t try to fool anyone,” Malone said. “In this day of social media, the only way to earn public trust is to be totally honest and transparent.”
Among the newspapers whose coverage focused on getting out accurate stories rather than being first, was The Biloxi Sun Herald. This commitment to thorough, balanced reporting helped the Sun Herald team win a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Reporting the devastation of their community, even when the reporters and editors had themselves lost everything in the storm, the paper maintained its focus on content rather than speediness. In our meeting with Sun Herald editors Stan Tiner and Blake Kaplan, they recounted the challenges of reporting during Katrina and the oil spill, and the importance of maintaining credibility in a whirlwind of misinformation. “We ran into the issue of who to trust and what information to go with on a daily basis,” said Kaplan.
“The nation was transfixed on the situation,” said Tiner. “BP was inside the silo with the government. Information was hard to come by. Everyone was suspicious. And as the media showed the image of oil gushing into the ocean everyday for months, it became a daily count, similar to the Iranian hostage crisis. This drove the story and increased pressure on media. We felt it was a story we had to cover, but we also felt the need to be an advocate for the people in our community… holding our public officials accountable.”
Is accurate journalism becoming more rare in this fast-paced media world? This group of SMU students went across the Gulf Coast to document a real-life disaster and learned more about communications than they would have in a classroom. Learning about issues such as journalistic truth helps raise questions and awareness in our generation, and impacts those of us who hope to be reporters in the future. — Tashika Varma