Tuesday, June 01, 2010

deepwater horizon and the media

There's no particular reason I have not discussed what I have seen and read about the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, and it is tragedy in many ways in terms of the lives of those lost, the environmental damage, and the economic damage to many industries. I have found it more interesting to see how the issues are relationships are being discussed in the media thus far. Additionally, it’s been hard to find time to write at length and really express myself without simultaneously discussing matters I have made it a general rule to not discuss (such as specifics about work).

As always, I will be deliberately vague about certain items since this is of course a topic related to work. Also, I might as well declare this very simply: I have no special knowledge beyond what has been in the press about what happened leading up to, during, and after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. I do not know anything particular about the well they were drilling or the techniques being used beyond what has been in the press. Anything I write on about what may have happened, I will frame it as a hypothetical or an option of the types of choices that were available.

At this point, it has been six weeks since the explosion that claimed 11 lives. In that time, there have been thousands of articles, blogs, interviews, op-ed pieces, and info-graphics on the tragedy. However, almost every article I have seen either misstates facts about the industry and/or incident or implies (presumably deliberately) some industry complicity with purposely causing the accident or a claim of unsubstantiated negligence that does not make sense. It is highly likely, based on testimony so far, that human factors played a role, but not necessarily to the degree or type that has always been portrayed in the media and that does not necessarily make it negligence.

A very basic example of this comes from a New York Times article that made this comment on the cost that “Evidence began emerging Wednesday [May 26] that BP officials may have had an incentive to proceed quickly." Well, of course they had an incentive to proceed quickly, but to say it took five weeks to find “evidence” of this implies that BP has been hiding this fact. This is a business where time and money have strong correlations, thus the faster you can complete a project, the less money you spend. I’m not sure what level of great investigative sleuthing it took to come up with the evidence the NYT found, but the implication that this is some sort of discovery is mildly sensationalist.

In a newspaper-supported blog (or I presume it to be since it’s on their website), a Los Angeles Times blogger begins with the implicating headline of “Gulf oil spill: The Halliburton connection.” What? Hey, let’s slap together silly headlines for all the sub-contractors associated with the project and phrase them to imply that Dick Cheney has been clubbing baby seals with nuclear warheads before drowning them in toxic waste from strip mines. Oh, fine, that was a bit much, but a more factual and functional headline would be: “Halliburton provided cementing services on Deepwater Horizon” because at least that’s factual and does not use the word ‘connection’ which is clearly being used to imply a negative relationship. You may take issue with my opinion on this as I am drawing a lot form six seemingly simple words and you’re welcome to disagree. However, given Halliburton’s reputation in the media, I see that headline as a deliberate attempt to imply something negative.

In reality, my bigger problem with the article is this gem of a line about how, "the giant energy services company, which was responsible for cementing the drill into place below the water.” It is very rare to cement an actual drill into place and that is not what they did on this well. Drills are for drilling and they are very expensive. You do not leave them in the well if it can be avoided. Plus, if it isn’t the last section of the well to drill, then you need to drill up the drill with yet another drill (which sounds like something straight from the Yo Dawg meme). It is presumably pretty obvious why that would be a problem.

One of the better articles I have read, complete with lots of mostly good graphics came from the Wall Street Journal. However, there are some basic problems I have with the article, including their assertion that “When workers poured in cement to seal the sides, that gas would have been pushed up the outside of the well." I suppose this statement is mostly correct, but my beef is with the use of the word poured. We do not pour cement. We pump cement. There is a difference. Pouring makes it sound like it just gets dumped it in and maybe it goes somewhere good. Cement is mixed, pumped, and placed with a great deal of purpose.

Perhaps my quibbles come from a perspective of someone who both greatly appreciates the finer points of language and communication (despite all evidence to the contrary in my writing) and I am merely picking on little, minor details. That is possible. However, every single article I have read has said at least one, but usually a few things that are not accurate or are misleading. This is not meant to take away from the severity of the events that have occurred and are continuing to unfold in the Gulf, but it is meant to point out that misinformation is easily and frequently disseminated by the media.


Mike said...

Remember the joke about media (as a plural of medium) that it is neither rare nor well-done?

If you consider that most reporters are humanities majors with no real knowledge in any of the science/technology/engineering/(specialized field of your choice), you wouldn't be surprised by any of the gross errors that occur in any article dealing with non-everyday events.

Oh yes, and check out this XKCD comic.

Especially with the web, the economy, and fox news, the journalism budget is stretched so thin that reporters are essentially forced to create sensationalist stories without time to check their facts and sources. Sad, indeed.

Scott said...

Yo dawg, we heard you like drilling so we put a drill in yo drill so we could drill up yo drill.

And if you're a fan of that meme, I suggest reading comixed.com. That site is absolutely hilarious.

Good find on the XKCD comic, Mike.

Brian said...

Very true comments about the lack of sufficient background knowledge and/or expertise in the media on many subjects. The sensationalism of the media is a phenomenon that seems to be indirectly linked with anti-intellectualism. Perhaps more on that later.

Brian said...

I feel like the Yo Dawg meme is like a layperson's meta. Perhaps Chris has something to say on the subject.