Few or no documentaries. Okay, that doesn't matter. But this does: In unbylined "An Environmentalist's Lament" (Breakthrough Journal, June 2011), we learn, once again, about the high costs of hype when it does matter:
Take last summer's BP oil spill in Louisiana. Covering the spill was the Super Bowl of environmental journalism. You couldn't have asked for a better disaster: the never-ending gusher, the oiled birds and tar balls, the callous foreign corporation and corrupt government agency.
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I was in no position to go off chasing oil slicks — but also with a certain discomfort I couldn't put my finger on until recently, when New Yorker staff writer Raffi Khatchadourian published an exhaustive investigation into the spill.
Khatchadourian disputed the notion that the BP-funded response to the spill was mismanaged and willfully negligent, as much of the contemporary coverage implied. He described an enormous effort that, while necessarily improvised and Byzantine, was mostly effective in cleaning up and dispersing the oil. More of a disaster, he argued, was the media coverage of and political response to the spill. In the early days after the Deepwater Horizon sank, says Khatchadourian, there were lots of tight-focus shots of oily marshes, with "suffocating swirls of shimmery crude and sickly pelicans. The scenes were riveting and heartbreaking," he wrote, "but they fundamentally misrepresented the situation." There was, in fact, very little oil to be found in Louisiana's marshland.
One reason all this was a problem is
But of course, hunt we did, and those images — sensationalized depictions that exaggerated the spill's damage — often spurred responders and politicians to insist on measures that were costly, ineffectual, and perhaps even harmful. It will be years before we fully understand the long-term effects of the oil and dispersants on the Gulf ecosystem and human health, but the Gulf of Mexico is thought to absorb more than 50 million gallons of oil a year from natural seeps in the ocean floor, and its biology is remarkably well-adapted to absorbing oil. It's less well-adapted to the dredging and building of artificial berms, and the placing of booms that Gulf Coast lawmakers insisted BP install in many ecologically sensitive areas as public outcry mounted. In his story, Khatchadourian asked the question that lingered in the back of my head all summer: is it possible that the breathless coverage of and knee-jerk responses to the disaster actually made the ecological damage worse?
What if we assume that nature – like it or not – is a product of design? That offers a context within which to evaluate scares.
It's worth considering because most hyped scares amount to nothing, but a great many unhyped scares are genuinely dangerous.
There's a reason for that: The coverage of a natural disaster that offers a gripping story with great pics – and reassurance that our personal politics have been right all along – is governed by saturation point, not by the actual threat posed.
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Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.