Sensationalism in Media

Comparing the 2010 BP oil spill with the ongoing Taylor Energy spill provides valuable insight into how these types of disasters are publicized. The BP oil spill stands as one of the worst environmental disasters in the living memories of many Americans, and rightly so. It is a snapshot moment in history. As with all events of this magnitude, media drives the public’s awareness. As the worst oil spill in American history at the time, the spill deserved all the attention it received in order to create the large cleanup efforts that are necessary for any oil spill. Over its first 100 days, 22% of all news during that time was devoted to coverage of the spill (“100 Days of Gushing) Oil”). What’s more interesting is that coverage of the spill peaked over six weeks later, and continued to be a top story for many more weeks, amidst the failure to stop the leaks as well as the environmental, economic, and political implications of the ongoing emergency (“100 Days of Gushing Oil”). For the media to cover

President Barrack Obama being briefed on the 2010 BP oil spill. Obama described the spill as “potentially the worst environmental disaster in American history.” Source: White House

something for such a long period is unusual as stories usually develop and dissipate rather quickly. This coverage was fueled by several factors that indicate that the spill was subject to sensationalism regardless of its extended length. First, on top of trying to cleanup the spill, the inability to stop the leak and the rate at which it was spilling was resulting in increasing and immediate impacts on the environment and the economy. In this way, the spill was acting similarly to a natural disaster that simply was not stopping, resulting in a continuous sensational event. Furthermore, President Barrack Obama and the government took responsibility of situation and of course government action produces media attention. Finally, the publication of the spill was ultimately jumpstarted by its sensational beginning, and carried by these other factors.

With its long term impacts, the BP oil spill is ultimately a slow violence event. Although the spill is no where near the headline news it used to be, its infamy has managed to keep it from falling completely out of the public conscious. Every year around April 20th, there is a small uptick in media surrounding the anniversary of the event. Even further, Peter Berg’s major motion picture Deepwater Horizon revisited the incident six years after it occurred. However, this news coverage may not be bringing enough attention to the persistent problems caused by all the oil spills that impact the Gulf of Mexico. This brings us to the current day Taylor Energy spill, the new largest oil spill in US history. Ironically, this spill was discovered during clean up of the BP oil spill, yet it continues to leak oil into the Gulf all these years later. Only recently have news networks begun to report on this ongoing 15 year event with some success. Hasan Minhaj’s commentary on the Taylor Energy spill on his show Patriot Act uses Netflix as a platform to break the ice about this event. Other large media outlets like NPR and The Washington Post have also released pieces to start the conversation about this spill.

Many oil spills do not get media coverage because they occur all too often and do not compare to the sensational impacts of Deepwater Horizon. If it takes 15 years of constant spilling and escalating damage for the media and the greater public to do something about life threatening events of slow violence then we need to think differently about how we cover these stories. 

Fears, Darryl. “A 14-Year-Long Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico Verges on Becoming One of the Worst in U.S. History.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 21 Oct. 2018.

“Oil.” Patriot Act. Volume 1, Netflix, 11 Nov. 2018. Netflix

Pew Research Center. “100 Days of Gushing Oil.” Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, Pew Research Center, 12 Nov. 2014.

Wendland, Tegan. “This Oil Spill Has Been Leaking Into The Gulf For 14 Years.” NPR, NPR, 10 Apr. 2019.