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The Gulf Oil Disaster: a peek at the nature of its media coverage

by February 25, 2011

When the Deepwater Horizon wellhead blew out on April 20th this past spring, as with what happens in most catastrophic events, the media went into frenzy.  What followed was a continuous feed of news stories about the Gulf disaster for a little longer than three months. These stories not only described what had happened, but also speculated as to what should happen, made measures of accountability, debated on restorative and retributive justice and described the potential impacts on economic markets and environmental systems as a direct or secondary effect of the spill.

Articles were written from a few varying perspectives: the heartfelt human interest stories, which pushed to convey empathy by humanizing the events; stories told on the basis of markets, externalities, profit and loss; pieces highlighting the corresponding actions of heads of government and policy makers, and stories illustrating the threats that the disaster posed to ecological systems and also populations reliant on these systems.

We, at Dialogue Earth, speculated the importance of the way these stories were written and how an author’s vantage may relate to how people feel about the Gulf Disaster; and then further, how this may be related to the social media buzz surrounding it.  Based on scholarly literature describing how articles may be framed, we devised our own set of frames:

  • Business & Economics: Reporting on companies, industries or markets to provide factual information.
  • Law & Policy: Reporting on government actors’ formations, adoption or evaluation of specific laws and policies.
  • Conflict: Presenting competing viewpoints in a controversy between identifiable individuals or groups to highlight a polarized issue.
  • Trade Offs: Weighing aspects of different options to indicate that there is not an obvious choice.
  • Security: Identifying and scrutinizing threats posed to populations or systems, possibly to advocate action.
  • Ethics: Questioning the morality of actions or belief systems.
  • Developments: Following the progression of a single subject or an unfolding event through time.
  • Human Interest: Personalizing a topic through anecdotal accounts of one person or a small homogenous group.

This event was an important testing ground for the further development of our framing analysis since it was a single topic, it had limited but temporally long coverage, a large volume of coverage, and it affected multiple discrete groups.  Over the course of three months, from April 20th until July 20th, we collected every New York Times article published about the Gulf Disaster – 426 in total.  It made sense to use a single source for uniformity in volume of coverage and ease in tracking the style and frames through which authors wrote their articles.

Looking at the daily and weekly trends of the coverage over the length of our observations, it’s interesting to see the overall and frame-specific change in article volume.  Especially when the daily events of the disaster are lined up against the trend lines; one may start to see relationships between what happened and how the media (the NY Times in this case) chose to cover it.

In the week following the explosion, the prominent frame by far was Security.  The story was being illustrated as a new threat with unknown implications and with a lot of speculation being thrown around.  There wasn’t yet an official spill rate (BP claimed 1,000 barrels a day, the Coast Guard estimated 8,000), government actors hadn’t yet become fully involved and there wasn’t a strategy to implement; the explosion had occurred and the oil was seeping, threatening the local habitats and populations.

In the second week, as the volume of coverage almost tripled, new elements of the story started to take shape as the oil spill seeped into the national conscious.  Human interest stories that centered on people’s personal accounts of the spill with their realized effects and stories concentrating on the ethical merits of oversight versus self-regulation and the ethics of land use began to emerge.

Throughout the Gulf disaster’s media life cycle, the Security and Developments frames were among the most frequently used, and it’s easy to see why.  There were new events related to these frames daily as many people’s livelihoods, along with fragile ecosystems, were threatened by the oil pooling onto the gulf surface and pluming underneath; especially as it began to hit commercial fishing areas and coastal towns.

Another interesting trend that can easily be seen in the graphical analysis is the doubling of the overall coverage volume from May 26th through June 22nd from the initial five weeks.  This dramatic increase also corresponds to a proportional heterogeneous increase in the use of the Law & Policy and Business & Economics frames for those four weeks.

During this time, Obama called for an offshore drilling moratorium while the US government increased its spill estimate to 19,000 barrels a day – to which the Flow Rate Technical Group added a potential 20,000 barrels – and BP finally released its high quality images of the broken wellhead.  Towards the end of this time span, Tony Hayward let the press know how badly this mess had affected his “normal life” and failed to live up to BP’s expectations in front of the US House Subcommittee on Oversight Investigation, all of which resulted in Robert Dudley taking charge of the BP Gulf Coast restoration.  Not surprisingly, these events did nothing but feed the media frenzy and add to the negative BP zeitgeist.

From the weekly and daily trends, it seems that after Hayward addressed the US House Subcommittee and Dudley took over on June 18th, the media, or at least the New York Times’ interest in the Gulf Disaster waned, as the coverage dropped by nearly fifty percent and Developments again became the prominent frame for the next four weeks.  Other events could have proven to be more prominent in the overall news cycle, or the media could have been burnt out from such a heavy treatment of BP and Gulf coverage with the high-profile drama ending upon Hayward’s departure.

In the final week of our analysis, Human Interest along with Security and Developments (as in the first weeks) dominated the coverage.  This week included the placement of the final cap over the wellhead and the cease of the flow of oil into the Gulf.

Analyzing article frames can do a lot to link public sentiment to a particular event.  If used over the lifetime of that particular event, it can prove to be a compelling case study about the evolution of the coverage of an event – and about the nature of media coverage in general.

Dialogue Earth research assistant, Kelly Hogan was the lead on collecting and analyzing the data for this project.


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