News, bloggers and oil spill coverage: You get what you pay for

by Karoli on June 1, 2010 · 14 comments

Mark Bernstein (who I do not know) went off on the blogosphere this weekend, complaining that bloggers (science bloggers, specifically) are not breaking down the oil spill story and writing on it in a coherent fashion. After ranting about how bloggers who are making a stab at explaining things aren’t doing a good enough job, he also makes sure we know he has a PhD in a physical science from Harvard.

I know nothing about oil drilling, but I have a Ph.D. in a physical science (from Harvard, forsooth) and I work in a technical profession and I have no idea what Heading Out is saying. And, damn it, this shouldn’t be that hard: we’ve got some pipes, some valves, a few fluids, and a reservoir under pressure. This is not rocket science, and it’s not quantum mechanics. Draw a diagram, show the flows, identify the forces.

Listen, Mr. Science PhD, we also have thousands of pages of federal regulations, the small problem of a breach 5,000 feet under the sea that is inaccessible by any human and must therefore be touched only by robotic hands, and a corporation at the helm that is less than cooperative about opening up its operations to anyone, much less a cadre of unpaid bloggers. Add gravitational, hydraulic and political forces to that and it’s an amazingly complex, difficult problem, one for which many, many PhDs have not found a clear solution.

The best service anyone can do for you and anyone else nostalgic for Apollo 13 and Mission control is to tell you this, as clearly as we can:

No one has a clear-cut solution to this problem. No one. It’s all guesswork, conjecture, and magical ideas. Deepwater oil drilling is a frontier, but the explorers did not plan adequately for all contingencies.

I am not a scientist. I’m a writer. I spend a lot of time researching difficult concepts and then writing them as clearly as I possibly can for anyone who might be interested. In this case, I have read well over 3,000 pages of filings, reports, regulations, and history around deepwater drilling. It took me two full weeks of research to write one post about whether a nuclear device would possibly be the answer to stopping the flow. Even then, my treatment of the topic was superficial. Why? Because…

  • I am not a scientist.
  • There is no hard data on using nuclear devices to stop oil flow.
  • People who read blog posts tune out at around paragraph three. If I haven’t explained it by then, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to hold their attention long enough to do it.
  • I don’t get paid enough.

Welcome to the Culture of News

See, Mr. Bernstein, your problem isn’t science bloggers; it’s the Culture of News.

The Culture of News dictates that all problems be explained and solved in five easy bullets with accompanying video and drawings simple enough for a third-grader to understand.

The Culture of News dictates that all problems must have simple solutions, broken down and illustrated with pretty pictures because we all know one picture is worth sixty zillion words.

The Culture of News dictates that when there is no pretty solution, someone must be blamed, preferably someone in the upper echelons of the United States government, even when there is no one to blame.

The Culture of News calls for some unemployed blogger with a bunch of free time to bubble up the stories that show up on your TV screen at 5pm, without any credit, of course.

The Culture of News labors under the false impression that those of us who care enough to spend the time researching do it for the love of the truth, and don’t have to eat or make house payments.

The Culture of News encourages superficial, manipulative reporting that causes emotions to rise in order to obfuscate reasonable thought and questions.

Why Katrina isn’t the Deepwater Horizon

Bernstein cites the Katrina coverage as one example of excellent blogging:

Just five years ago, we had Katrina and no one knew what was happening, but I could point you to five blogs that were piecing together the picture, blogs that knew as much about what was going on as anyone, anywhere – including people on the scene.

Katrina was an example of a relatively simple problem with a deeply high, human cost. People who lived in New Orleans knew exactly what the issue was: the levees were never built or retrofitted to sustain the stress of a 100-year storm. Even laymen understand that the walls fall down when enough stress is put on them, water pours in, people drown. It’s a simple story with incredibly complex implications.

The Katrina story also had the added bonus of a narrative of government ennui. In this oil spill, we have government personnel notified, on the scene within hours overseeing the damage. Unfortunately, there’s very little the government overseers can do beyond making sure everything that can be done, is being done.

On the other hand, FEMA was not prepared for something they were specifically tasked to be prepared for during Hurricane Katrina. Unlike their response to Florida just weeks earlier, they weren’t staged anywhere near New Orleans, seemed to have no plan for how to get in there and rescue people, and worst of all, didn’t really seem to care if they did get in there and rescue people. The Katrina story was an easy one to tell because people in New Orleans were the ones most capable of telling it.

Many disasters rolled into one narrative are their own disaster

Let’s break down the oil spill story into component disasters for a minute. We have:

  • Commercial – The fishing, shrimping, tourism, and boating industries have just been brought to a screaming halt at the peak of their season, causing a second wave of loss to people who are just now overcoming their loss 5 years ago.
  • Natural – The wetlands, the dolphins, the birds, the undersea habitats of many unnamed creatures. An entire ecosystem at risk of complete destruction forever.
  • Economic – Nearly half of all domestic oil and natural gas comes from the Gulf of Mexico. This one field yielded more of both than the sum of hundreds closer to shore. Since we’re a country of oil addicts, there will be a nationwide economic consequence to the loss of this well, and there already is an economic consequence to Louisiana.
  • Scientific – Yes, this is a scientific disaster, because Bernstein’s frustration isn’t really with the bloggers. It’s with the science, or the lack of science around this blowout. What Bernstein wants can’t be delivered because no one actually sat down and modeled a catastrophe like this one out. No one KNOWS.

Those four components each hold numerous complexities of their own. They’re not easily explained in bullets and charts. There’s nuance. There are tradeoffs. Environmentalists and people like me who abhor what this spill is doing to the shore say “No more drilling offshore, period!!!” without considering the depth of the economic cost to such a draconian measure. Make no mistake, it would take a considerable national sacrifice to end all offshore drilling, and it wouldn’t happen overnight.

Just the use of dispersants was enough to send many reeling, but that’s because they didn’t realize that dispersants are the first best line of defense against a spill of this magnitude, and there actually IS available science showing that prompt use of dispersants can save the wetlands and marshes from certain oily death.

Ground control to Major Tom: There is no plan

Bernstein asks “Where is mission control???”. Perhaps this will help him understand the answer to that question:

That is the flowchart overview from the BP Regional Oil Spill Response Plan, which is 582 pages long and has a plan for situations from the smallest spill to a gusher of 250,000 barrels per day. I’ve read all 582 pages, and have a simple report for you and Mr. Bernstein:

They’re following the plan, but the plan didn’t address how to repair a blown well 5,000 feet under the sea, because no one required them to consider such a thing.

Bernstein’s complaint is the same one we all have, but there are no easy answers and there is no avuncular Walter Cronkite to make us all feel better about what’s going on. In his absence, the press is opting for the shrill, blaming tone instead of one more honest and firm, to our all of our detriment. But then again, we get the press we ask for.

There. is. no. plan. There. are. no. easy. solutions. It’s time to accept this and start investing in some research and development for contingency planning, because what has happened here is symptomatic of what is happening everywhere. It is the product of national hubris. We either start putting our money where our hearts are, via education and research, or we accept the consequence.

In the meantime, don’t blame the bloggers. Why should we hand out freebies that put more money in the pockets of the likes of Rupert Murdoch and his gang? Do your own homework. Figure it out. It won’t take you too long to understand what I do: There is nothing to figure out. It’s a disaster that’s going to take a lot of duct tape and maybe even divine intervention to bring to an end.

The success of sound-bitten superficial news speaks more to those who consume it than those who report it. Clearly there is no demand for mission control or Walter Cronkite when the majority are content with the shrill, blame-ridden report about nothing.

You get what you pay for, after all.

Bonus: Mainstream media rips off blogger’s story without attribution

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mark Bernstein June 1, 2010 at 8:50 pm

It sounds like I offended you. I'm sorry! (Are you “Heading Out”? If so, I did say some things about your writing that might seem unkind, but I also said you were doing the best work out there — and that includes the major broadcasters and newspapers. I'd imagine that might soothe the hurt a bit?)

I think this is unfair on two counts.

First, I AM willing to pay. But we both accept that a variety of torques and editorial biases make it very difficult to do good, in-depth science reporting for the broadcast networks and the major surviving papers. The Houston Chronicle and the Picayune are both doing some good reporting, but I think their shortcomings are common ground among us. Yesterday, the New York Times apparently confused methanol and methane in their description of what BP plans to do next. Is that your idea of excellence?

I'm delighted you've read the 500-page contigency plan. What does it suggest as a next step? How does its projected timeline square with what has already been observed? Where do you discuss it? (Not a rhetorical question: I havent met your weblog before. Sorry.)

I don't understand why you think this problem is so complex that it cannot be explained, at least in outline, to engineers and scientists and even to educated laypersons. This is what technical writers and science reporters do, and it's what the blogosphere claims to do.

2 Karoli June 1, 2010 at 9:13 pm

You didn't make me angry as much as you triggered a wellspring of frustration about this oil spill, the fact that reading 5,000 pages of reports, science and plans like the BP plan leave one with no clear answers to report, no solutions, no pathways. That's the bottom line here. I could climb down in the weeds and show you why that is, but it's true.

Here's what the plan says about a catastrophic 250,000 barrels a day spill:

a) stop the leak by using existing safety protocols and valves (of course, this doesn't apply here since all available safety valves are non-existent because the thing had a catastrophic failure that not only blew out the pipe, but blew up the rig)
b) Use booms, barges, tugs and vacuums to recover as much of the surface oil as possible before it reaches the shore.
c) use dispersants after obtaining govt approval while continuing measures to stanch the flow
d) call out contractors who specialize in stopping oil spills. Visits to the contractors' sites are uninformative and they seem to be quite reticent about telling anyone their plans for stopping the flow. Evidently they want to protect trade secrets, or just really have no clue. Since they are not required to disclose those plans (because they are contractors), we all watch the live feed of the thing and guess at what they're doing down there.

Seriously. This is the extent of it. It does not address the possibility of a breach at 5,000 feet, doesn't look at the problems attendant with that breach, nor was the failure to do so a defect in their plan under current regulations.

However, you will have the contact names and numbers of every media outlet in the state along with a long list of environmental and industry contacts to make when something like this happens.

Bottom line: BP had a plan. But they didn't have a plan for this, nor were they required to.

With that said, I will also add that BP has been unfairly slammed for their application of dispersant, which was fully approved and which does have demonstrable scientific evidence for its use to save wetland areas. The experiments were conducted by independent scientists and show clearly the benefit of its application.

Back to the issue of bloggers for a minute. I meant what I said. The $25 a month I make from ads on this site does not justify writing detailed analyses of different options for stopping this for two reasons. One, no one will pay for it, and two, if it gets any traction at all, it will be stolen by mainstream media outlets or search engine scrapers, which works to their benefit but not ours.

Unfortunately, I don't have much of a solution for that, either. At least, not yet.

3 Diana Lee June 2, 2010 at 2:15 am

As with any technical subject, especially one that involves knowledge in so many fields, most journalists are trying to get up to speed and no matter how hard they try, just can't. And I count most bloggers as journalists because I think many of us are. What we truly need is someone with an understanding of the legal and scientific elements of this situation with the time to write about it for laypeople. Probably not a profile that is thick on the ground. But kudos to writers like you, Karoli, who are making an effort.

4 Karoli June 2, 2010 at 6:35 am

This subject and Afghanistan have been the two hardest for me. This one, because there is so much to learn not only science-wise, but also with regard to regulatory requirements. Afghanistan because there are no good solutions.

5 wendy June 2, 2010 at 8:55 pm

What an excellent piece. Thank you.

6 Patricia June 4, 2010 at 5:03 am

I've been posting and reposting this – just think it nails so many issues. “National hubris” EXACTLY!!

7 Karoli June 4, 2010 at 6:30 am

Thank you! :)

8 Karoli June 4, 2010 at 6:30 am

And thank you, too! :)

9 Lisa Stone June 7, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Karoli, for your articulation of supply and demand in news reporting, and your call to take personal responsibility the quality of news today — you are BlogHer Voice of the Week: http://www.blogher.com/blogher-voice-week-drumsnwhistles

10 Virginia DeBolt June 7, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Congratulations to BlogHer's Voice of the Week for this oil spill thought-piece.

11 Virginia DeBolt June 7, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Congratulations to BlogHer's Voice of the Week for this oil spill thought-piece.

12 Virginia DeBolt June 7, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Congratulations to BlogHer's Voice of the Week for this oil spill thought-piece.

13 Karoli June 7, 2010 at 7:17 pm

thank you! I'm gratified and flattered to have this featured. :)

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