Networks prepare to shift oil spill coverage into new phase

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Oil spill coverage shifting into new phase

NEW YORK — The cap that has stopped oil from gushing uncontrollably into the Gulf of Mexico inevitably means that news cameras will begin drifting away from the disaster scene — a relief to some, a fear to others.

The story has dominated broadcast evening newscasts, with CBS’ Katie Couric, ABC’s Diane Sawyer and NBC’s Brian Williams making nine separate trips to the stricken scene since Williams’ first visit on May 3. Couric and Sawyer were both in the Gulf region last week.

Live video of cascading oil was perfect for cable news, where producers could flip a switch and call it up anytime, making every spill story seem timely and urgent. Its absence is good news, but many who live and work in the Gulf are worried about what will happen when news crews leave, said CNN’s Anderson Cooper, in his eighth week anchoring his nightly CNN newscast from the region.

“People here feel that often they get forgotten,” Cooper said. “I know that’s a huge concern right now.”

News executives say they’re very aware the story won’t be over with the pictures changing.

“On any given day in the next couple of weeks, they will hopefully stop the flow of oil in the Gulf, and this turns into a story about a massive environmental cleanup — the likes of which we haven’t seen,” said NBC News President Steve Capus. “I still think that’s worthy of coverage.”

That’s true, said Paul Friedman, CBS News senior vice president. But correspondents Mark Strassmann and Kelly Cobiella, who have spent most of their time on the story for the past couple of months, will now alternate time there, he said.

“I think it’s an occasional return to the story to see how the cleanup is going and what the effect is on the people who are down there,” Friedman said. “But that’s occasional, that’s not every day.”

It’s about time, news consultant Andrew Tyndall said. He angered many in the TV news business by posting an online commentary last week saying about the Gulf coverage: “Enough already!”

Damaging the marine ecosystem and wrecking businesses in the tourism and fishing industries is terrible, Tyndall said. But he called it an insult to the memory of Hurricane Katrina victims and to New Orleans that television news has essentially given equivalent attention to the disasters.

There comes a point where the local effects of the spill become a local story, no more or less important than the impact of the economy on people elsewhere in the country, said Tyndall, whose TMI Research firm closely monitors the content of newscasts.

The newscasts have spent too much time on what are essentially local angles and not enough on macro questions such as what it all means for the future of U.S. energy policy, he said.

Several news executives said Tyndall was off base. “I respectfully disagree with his conclusion that it’s time to stop,” NBC’s Capus said.

Billions of dollars in cleanup spending, the involvement of presidents, prime ministers and one of the world’s biggest companies in BP is “not what I call local,” said Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC’s “World News.”

“That is a singular American industry down there with the shrimpers and the fishermen,” Banner said. “If for nothing else, they deserve the attention because a way of life they have counted on and tried to protect for generations is now in question. That doesn’t happen every day in America. For that reason, the story should be told.”

Tyndall isn’t backing down.

“I never said it shouldn’t be covered,” he said. “I just said it was covered too much.”

Through the end of last week, there was 1,183 minutes of oil disaster coverage on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts, or one-third of the broadcast time over a two-month period, Tyndall said. ABC’s 338 minutes was at the low end of the coverage, and NBC’s 448 minutes at the high end, Tyndall said.

Consistently, a little more than half of news consumers said they were following the story closely through the second week of July, when it dipped to 43 percent, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The press lost interest before the public, Pew tracking data showed.

NBC environmental correspondent Anne Thompson has been the most visible reporter, since she’s on the most-watched newscast and had more stories than any other individual reporter. CBS’ Strassman, ABC’s Matt Gutman and Jeffrey Kofman, and NBC’s Mark Potter all had more than 20 stories on the topic on the evening newscasts.

CNN’s Cooper said he and the network are playing it by ear to determine when his broadcast will return from the Gulf. He took a brief trip to Haiti for an earthquake follow-up last week.

Cooper has aggressively gone after BP and the government for the pace of cleanup efforts. His commentary on the Coast Guard’s effort to restrict media access to the cleanup, where he repeatedly said, “We are not the enemy,” was widely seen online and helped news organizations’ successful effort to have the government abandon the idea.

The attention of the media going forward is essential to keeping up the pace of cleanup, he said.

“People here recognize that and people here are very afraid that now the media is just going to pick up the cameras and move on to the next thing,” he said. “Television hasn’t done a very good job of sticking with stories.”

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