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Oiled Brown Pelican upon intake May 20, 2010 at Fort Jackson, Louisiana Oiled Wildlife Center (source: International Bird Research Rescue Center).

It’s been nearly seven months since the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Although coverage of the resulting oil spill has waned, discussion and finger-pointing remain.

This week, the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!) held an Oil Spill Symposium, where some of the nation’s leaders — working for government agencies, academia and the media — shared their thoughts on how the oil spill was handled and what lies ahead.

From the comfort of my Madison apartment, I watched the symposium streamed live online. Naturally, the session on how the media covered the spill piqued my interest. From the panels of journalists, including correspondents from CNN, NPR and The New York Times, one theme stood out: How can media professionals streamline information to the public when agencies and researchers may not have the most up-to-date or correct information?

During national crises, there’s no time for peer-reviewed science. In the case of the oil spill, researchers estimated the impacts of the spill as best they could at the time. It’s no wonder that sources of information were brutally attacked.

But let’s remember — as J-School professor and Knight Chair Patricia Thomas points out — that the media isn’t a monolith. Sure, there’s a spectrum of coverage — good, mediocre and bad. But blaming “the media” for negative public perceptions is inexcusable. We should know this by now.

Among the exceptional (in my opinion) journalists covering the spill, NPR’s Richard Harris detailed his experience while working on a story that challenged government and BP estimates of leaking oil each day. Harris consulted three scientific experts, who independently gave him estimates significantly higher than what was being reported. After airing a series of stories on the issue, the government formed a task group that would measure the rate of oil being released. (See, journalism is still powerful!)

Another participant, Justin Gillis from the Times, emphasized the need for a ready-to-go scientific response plan in which the government can tap into experts as quickly as possible. He found it baffling that the people most familiar with the ecology of the Gulf were on the outside of the conversation trying to correct misinformation disseminated by the government.

I found this an intriguing point as well. But I also thought about the experts who don’t want to be “tapped into” — the ones unwilling to comment on the event. Often, industry ties or fear of being criticized by the scientific community were to blame.

Which brings me to the point: If more scientists would communicate with journalists and the public, there’s no doubt coverage of science and the environment would benefit. Yet, my definition of preparedness requires more than collaboration between scientists and government agencies. Ultimately, it will demand less censored relationships between scientists and journalists, which take time and practice.

For now, we’ll have to settle on hoping nothing of this magnitude happens again anytime soon.

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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