The news media is a source of information utilized extensively by the American public to remain informed of the world, their own country and local community events. As far as the public is concerned, all news is factual and credible. To suggest to the American public that their own news media may be manipulating their opinion for ulterior motives, would be insulting to their intelligence and absolutely not accepted. After all, they rely on the news to make major decisions about their own beliefs, daily interactions and behaviors. To be told that they might be sold a bill of goods in order to be manipulated for the gain of an outside party, would make them feel like fools and the response would be an automated objection of an aggressive sort. This paper will address the factors revolving around the American mass media campaign regarding the British Petroleum oil spill.
First a detailed synopsis of the situation. British Petroleum had a catastrophic event in the Gulf of Mexico which related to the explosion and subsequent sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Eleven people were killed and the leak in the BP pipe was releasing oil and gas into the deep ocean floor. “Over 87 days, the damaged Macondo wellhead in the deep sea, around 5,000 feet down, leaked an estimate 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, making the spill the largest accidental ocean spill in history” (The Ocean Portal Team). The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History was chosen for the primary source of identifying the details of the story. This was chosen because museums are dedicated to facts and preservation of history. They are not driven by political campaigns and sales. Although it could be said that a museum may be affiliated with external donors or sources that may want information presented in a certain fashion, the depth of the article presented on their website includes an expansive history of oil spills in various parts of the world, the science behind addressing it and how it impacts wildlife. It is a great resource for identifying every facet of how the oil spill affected the natural world, the humans involved in correcting it, and what it takes to rectify the situation.
Media coverage of the incident was very unique in comparison to other disaster stories. This incident was able to maintain consistent news coverage never before seen in the history of news reporting and a contender for highest ranking news story of all time.
The Gulf saga registered as the No. 1 story in the mainstream news agenda in nine of those 14 weeks—and it never finished lower than No. 3. During four of those weeks, from May 24 to June 20, the disaster accounted for 38% of the news studied. That is an extraordinary run of coverage for any story, but particularly a disaster that required so many resources spread over so many locations (Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project Staff).
The story covered so many aspects that enabled the shifting of focus pertaining to the event to keep the attention on the event. The events were covered, as noted by Pew Research Center, in the following synopsis: April 20-May 9 focus remained on the explosion, the missing workers, the size of the spill, and the responsibility placed upon BP and the US government to handle the situation, and the environmental impact. The focal shift became the environmental and economic impact for the weeks following. Focus on addressing the issue and stopping the leak were of primary concern at this point. This brings to light the forms of media that focused on this event.
The various publishers’ backgrounds and target audiences are vast. The traditional mainstream nightly news broadcasts as well as the country’s most trusted newspapers. These include the New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, and more. The television networks such as ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, and others were all just as heavily involved in the reporting. There was also international news coverage, which would have to be sought out specifically for any American to even be aware of its existence. The Guardian is one of the most prominently known British news sources familiar to Americans. They too covered the story. The focus between the television media sources (network vs. cable) was one of specific focus for the Pew Research Journalism Project. They found that there was a substantial difference in the manner that the story was told between the two distinct categories. They found that the networks focused on the environmental impact, especially with the heavy image impact that could be made on such a platform. To the contrary, the cable networks focused on the blame factor. CNN focused on the cleanup and various aspects being used, while MSNBC and FOX focused on the “who” factor and where responsibility should lie.
Focusing on responsibility is not necessarily a problem. However, the attack methodology utilized to steer the public’s opinion of the company or the government was questionable. If one did not pay attention, based upon the smear campaigns running, it would almost seem as though President Obama caused the oil spill himself. Why would any news source feel the need to create such a public distrust of a government official, especially in relation to an event that was clearly the fault of factors unrelated to his efforts in his Presidential office? That brings us to address who owns the media companies and do they have political motivation to promote campaign smears for personal gain.
According to Business Insider, 90% of the media in America are controlled by 6 corporations. Who are these corporations? General Electric owns Comcast, NBC, Universal Pictures, and Focus Features. News-Corp owns Fox, Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. Disney owns ABC, ESPN, Pixar, MiraMax and Marvel Studios. Viacom owns MTV, Nick Jr., BET, CMT, and Paramount Pictures. Time Warner owns CNN, HBO, TIME, and Warner Brothers. CBS owns Showtime, Smithsonian Channel, NFL.com, Jeopardy and 60 Minutes. Already, the questioning of the information mentioned earlier in this paper comes into question with the realization that the Smithsonian Channel is owned by CBS. Does this mean the website is run by the Smithsonian Channel or the Museum itself and are they so inter-related that they are inseparable?
All of the above stations are now under scrutiny due to the nature of such limited ownership. Ownership by only six corporations can have impact on news related to the profit margins of said corporations or their own political agendas. Story creation choice remains questionable. The question remains whether the story was told to drive public opinion to pass legislation which they had a vested interest in or if they were seeking more illicit endeavors such as steering public opinion for political campaigns of seat-holding nature. With corporate interest involved in politics, it is easy for corporations to drive the public interest to support their interest through such a source as news, which the public, as a general rule, trusts implicitly.
The target audience has very specific demographics. Again, Pew Research Journalism Project demonstrated how significantly this particular story impacted the general American public. The duration of the reporting as well as the continual shift of focus, kept the American population completely engrossed for the longest period of time that any news story has ever been offered in American news media history. The 55-59% continuous engagement of American viewers speaks volumes as to who the target audience was. Clearly the audience had to be avid news watchers. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press also did an extensive study on the demographics of news viewers and which news sources they were most drawn to. “Many regular news audiences have more education than the general public. And in general, regular readers of newspapers and magazines are more educated than the audiences of television shows or networks” (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press). The majority of those who watch the televised news were over 50 and not college educated according to the same study. So, it would appear that the media conglomerates are targeting a less-educated demographic that is also a larger portion of the population (the Baby Boomer generation).
The larger population, which is also more malleable due to less education, can also be the most impactful at the polls. This is their target audience if they really have a political agenda with the manner in which they present the news. It would appear that such emotional campaign smearing is more designed to sway reaction than it is to present hard facts. Using emotions or fear to persuade an audience is clearly not the agenda of a pure desire for presentation of facts for news sake. There would likely be a hidden agenda to utilize, so strategically, such tactics. Miller et al (1) point to the fact that it isn’t about skewing facts as much as reframing the fact to a certain viewpoint that is so heavily utilized in our mainstream media sources.
Why does the media sway the public? Is it for advertising dollars? Is it for political reasons? The media sways the public according to the directives of their own directors. These directors are given clearance form their media owners before publication is ever performed. Although it is said that the news and journalists are free to interpret and obtain the news in any manner they wish, the truth of the matter lies within the confines of who pays their paychecks. If the owner of the network is not akin to utilizing a certain framework in presenting a story, they can have substantial influence on the manner in which the story is spun. What are the consequences of media bias? Media bias can clearly impact public understanding and motivation with regard to consumer decisions, economic decisions, environmental decisions, and most importantly, their voting decisions.
This does not mean that positive outcome was not achieved through this media campaign. As a result of the efforts of media which focused on the combination of governmental regulatory oversight and environmental impact, new laws were and are being proposed to address concerns. On such law states
The Article next integrates eight different conceptual approaches to propose three core strategies for better multidimensional governance¬—hybridity, multiscalar inclusion, and responsiveness—and evaluates reform proposals made in the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in light of them. It considers how citizens’ councils, regulatory burden-shifting, voluntary industry-based regulatory institutions, and independent scientific and technical review bodies could complement efforts to make the federal process more rigorous and adaptive (Osofsky 1).
American mass media has room for improvement. The background of the media industry is muddied upon the merging of media sources since the 1980’s. There were at one point, over 50 news media owners, and now there are only six. According to Entman (92), the concern over fewer media owners is a conflict of interest and can create calamities such as discussed in this paper. The solution is to disperse ownership or to create new media sources that are not reliable upon the funding sourced from these six primary conglomerates. “Media discourse and public opinion are treated as two parallel systems of constructing meaning” (Gamson 1). The responsibilities of the media are to inform the public so that they can make informed decisions regarding their consumer choices, behavior choices, lifestyle choices, and political choices. How does reporting affect popular opinion? The media has been used for decades in skewing public opinion to follow the desired behavior outcome as decided upon by those in charge of the media outlet. Media was used to generate support for wars in very grand propaganda schemes during World War II, and they are continuing to be used in similar ways by the corporations who own the media sources themselves.
The question of whether journalists and reporters can be objective remains questionable. Of course journalists and reporters can be objective about the news. The challenge lies within the manner in which they are allowed to spin the story. Careful nuance would have to be addressed to remain in alignment with the funding source’s desires and the reality of the news being addressed. It is clear that the potential for media abuse is ripe and very likely being utilized by certain groups who look to gain political advantage, financial advantage, or attention drawn to matters important to them when they have the central focus of the American population at their fingertips. Knowing that they have the power to manipulate beliefs, actions, and feelings with such a powerful tool, trusted by many, at their complete disposal can render the news a dangerous political platform which can hold the potential to make great change or devastate an entire country. That kind of power is supposed to be prevented through our democratic process, but when that process is controlled by the corporations that control the access to information, the water becomes quite muddy and the reliability of facts, become quite questionable.
Independent media, often under-supported or under-represented, most often offers news that is more likely to be untainted by corporate bias. The audience has to be aware of such media sources and where to find them. The marketing for such sources is minimal due to lack of funding. Most of America is only aware of the corporate funded news options.
Entman, Robert M. Democracy Without Citizens: Media and the decay of American politics. Oxford University Press: New York. 1989. http://books.google.com/books
Gamson, William A. “Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A constructionists’ approach.” American Journal of Sociology 95:1. 1989. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2780405?uid=3739560&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21103850256073
Lutz, Ashley. “These 6 Corporations own 90% of the Media in America.” Business Insider. June 2012. http://www.businessinsider.com/these-6-corporations-control-90-of-the-media-in-america-2012-6
Miller, M. Mark and Bonnie Parnell Reichert. “Chapter 2: Interest Group Strategies and Journalistic Norms: News media framing of environmental issues” in Allan, Stuart, Barbara Adam and Cynthia Carter Environmental Risks and the Media. Routledge: London. 2000. http://books.google.com/books
Osofsky, Hari M. “Multidimensional Governance and the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.” Florida Law Review. 2011. http://scholarship.law.ufl.edu/cgi/viewcontent
Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project Staff. “A different kind of disaster story.” Pew Research Journalism Project. August 25, 2010. http://www.journalism.org/2010/08/25/oil-spill-was-very-different-kind-disaster-story/
Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project Staff. “The public was fascinated.” Pew Research Journalism Project. August 25, 2010. http://www.journalism.org/2010/08/25/public-had-huge-appetite-story/
Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project Staff. “The spill was a TV story, but different on cable vs. network.” Pew Research Journalism Project. August 25, 2010. http://www.journalism.org/2010/08/25/oil-spill-has-been-tv-story-was-different-cable-vs-network/
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “Section 4: Demographics and Political Views of News Audiences.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. September 27, 2012. http://www.people-press.org/2012/09/27/section-4-demographics-and-political-views-of-news-audiences/
The Ocean Portal Team. “Gulf Oil Spill.” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. http://ocean.si.edu/gulf-oil-spill