Media watch: Drenched in oil


April Forristall, assistant editor

Published on
May 10, 2010

The mainstream media’s coverage of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been overwhelming over the past three weeks. Dozens of news outlets in practically every U.S. state have run stories regarding the spill’s impact on seafood, and even some Canadian and European publications have picked up on the news.

The majority of the coverage revolved around the potential for increased seafood prices. The mainstream media did a good job of summing up the situation and deciphering the spill’s impact on fishing activities and seafood supplies.

While the Gulf Coast seafood industry did its best to disseminate information, major news outlets like the New York Times and CNN aided the cause by providing accurate information to their far-reaching audiences.

The New York Times, which alone ran at least four stories about the spill’s impact on seafood, ran an article emphasizing the possibility that consumers are getting the wrong idea: “As oil continued to leak uncontrollably into the Gulf of Mexico and toward the coast, the fishing industry in the region was trying to forestall another perilous flow — of fear and misinformation.”

The newspaper pointed out that “only six of the 32 oyster beds on the east side of the Mississippi River have been closed, and the oil is still 70 or 80 miles away.” The article also declared that “there is not tainted seafood right now,” and that everything fisheries managers are doing is “precautionary.” summed up the situation well in just one sentence: “While consequences of the oil spill are unclear, Louisiana restaurant owners know one thing: if the public believes the seafood may be contaminated it can kill their business.”

Although the positive coverage outnumbered the negative, as always a few news outlets took an alarmist approach, running headlines that fueled consumers’ fears, potentially causing them to avoid seafood indefinitely.

The Christian Science Monitor made it seem like the spill wiped out the entire Louisiana seafood supply with the headline “New Orleans without seafood gumbo? Oil spill’s unsavory toll.”

“The BP oil spill and its effect on state fisheries may soon force a rewriting of New Orleans menus from the seafood cuisine that the Crescent City is best known for to less distinctive fare,” read the article.

And the San Francisco Chronicle headline “Oil Soaked Crab” probably didn’t help tame consumer misperception of “tainted” seafood. The body of the article got they story right, but it didn’t change the fact that some readers don’t get beyond the headline and envision a plate of fish dripping in oil.

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