Katie, Brian and Diane: You Could Have Done Better

Within hours of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion last April, the nation’s news networks began wall-to-wall coverage of the disaster. This resulted in hundreds of hours of “Gulf oil spill” news being beamed into homes across the nation.

The influence the three major networks and cable news channels have with the American public is immense. Millions of people gather around their television each evening to hear the news of the day. And often they make major decisions in their lives based on what they hear — and even on what they don’t hear.

Between them, Katie Couric of CBS, Brian Williams of NBC and Diane Sawyer of ABC made nine trips to the Gulf Coast between April and late July to report on the spill and its effects. CNN’s Anderson Cooper remained on site for weeks to report the story.

There is no question the oil spill will be the story of the year for the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal counties, especially in Northwest Florida. Not only did our beaches suffer the threat of being covered with gooey patches of oil and tar balls, but our economy, our environment and the lives of millions of people were — and continue to be — affected. Indeed, this catastrophic event deserved to be the lead story in national newscasts from the time the rig exploded until the gushing oil well was finally subdued this summer.

But what concerns and disappoints me is that the national media focused primarily on the sensational side of the story, seeming to paint the entire Gulf Coast as an oily mess — and that’s the lasting impression that has been made on the American public.

How many times in the initial days of coverage did we see the same poor pelican, covered in oil and unable to move? How many times did we hear “Gulf oil spill” in a voiceover as the camera panned a grassy ecosystem covered in oil or a white sand beach covered in tar balls? The impression was that the oil was everywhere, when in fact most of Florida’s beaches managed to escape that horror.

I travel to Panama City Beach and Beaches of South Walton probably twice a month on business. In mid-July, I conducted an experiment by taking a 4-mile walk along the beach between 5 and 6 a.m., before the cleanup workers or news cameramen got out of bed. On both occasions, not a single tar ball stained the bottom of my feet. Yes, some of our beaches, especially in Pensacola, did see some effects from the oil. But most remained oil-free.

But did the Jones family from Atlanta ever know that? Probably not, because their perception was that the oil had tainted the entire Gulf Coast, from Key West to Mexico. And despite local webcams that streamed images of clean beaches through the Internet to the world, perception became reality to the Joneses and thousands like them. In droves, they canceled their Gulf Coast summer-vacation reservations or opted for the Atlantic Coast instead.

So here we have a region of the country that was economically devastated this year, in part due to the big three networks and their cable cohorts getting the nation to focus on only part of the story. People lost jobs, and many businesses were damaged beyond repair. In short, the tourism industry that is the economic engine of Northwest Florida took a catastrophic hit.

What can these media giants do about it now? I am sure the network sales departments are delighted to accept millions of BP’s ad dollars so the region’s counties can try to remove the misconceptions ingrained in the minds of millions of Americans who just don’t understand what is happening here.

But maybe Katie, Brian and Diane, who may have flown to the coast on a corporate jet for a brief stint before returning to their comfortable lives in New York, need to think about what they have not done. The Obama family visited the oil-free waters of Panama City Beach in mid-August, with the president even taking time for a dip in the Gulf. Shouldn’t our media giants consider the same — and feature that story on the nightly news? After all, telling the whole story is part of the job.

The trust the American public has in these media giants should not be taken lightly. They have an obligation to the public — and to a region that saw its economy deeply affected by misperceptions fed by their stories.

If they don’t tell the rest of the story, I’d grade them with a solid “D.”

Categories: Archive