Steve's Blog: Journalists take a closer look at oil spill coverage

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WLOX) - By Steve Phillips – bio | email

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WLOX) - I'm spending three days in New Orleans this week to discuss ongoing and future news coverage of the oil spill. I was among 20 journalists chosen to take part in a seminar sponsored by the Poynter Institute:  "The Gulf Oil Disaster: Covering What Comes Next."

Participants include a variety of TV, radio, newspaper and web reporters from Dallas to Panama City. I'm hoping to learn more and better ways to report on the variety of issues surrounding the oil crisis.

Dr. Bob Thomas spoke to our group on Monday. He's with the Center for Environmental Communication at Loyola University.  Dr. Thomas said one frustration with coverage of the oil spill involves the many unanswered questions that remain.

"Scientists telling the public, 'We're not certain about this' is very unnerving to the public," Thomas said.

He also urged journalists to connect the dots when it comes to other potential impact of the oil spill. Dr. Thomas urged reporters to consider "the plankton."

Plankton are the microscopic food source in the gulf that provide meals for pogie fish. Pogies are caught and used to make fish meal.  That fish meal provides food for chickens at poultry farms.

Connecting the dots on the food chain, one can easily understand that the loss of plankton in gulf waters is suddenly affecting a chicken producer in North Mississippi. Dr. Thomas also discussed the long term impact of the spill.

"If there's one fear that people have in the gulf coast, it's the long term accountability."

Poynter Institute instructor Al Tompkins told the panel of journalists, "We must find ways to take this story beyond the oiled pelicans."

Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper reporter Mark Schleifstein was another speaker.  He told the group one big question about the oil spill impact is going to be, "How clean is clean?"

Schleifstein said there will likely be vigorous debate about when to let BP off the hook in terms of clean up.

Andy Radford, a senior policy advisor with the American Petroleum Institute, gave the group an oil industry perspective of the ongoing story.  Radford talked about how oil will continue to be a significant portion of America's energy needs for years to come.

He also said many of the "most promising" oil reserves are located in the Gulf of Mexico.

Radford also discussed the industry's response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  He said oil company interests came together to discuss and review existing safety standards and concerns.

"We're going to raise the bar, do things a little differently and make sure we're safe at the most critical junctions of the wells," Radford said.

Finally, Jaimi Dowdell with Investigative Reporters and Editors talked about sifting through the enormous amount of data that's out there related to the Gulf oil spill.  She provided a valuable lesson about using search engines and software to research this complex story.

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