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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.


Photo by Allison Klein, USGS

A couple of weeks ago, people in Arkansas and Louisiana watched as hundreds of birds came falling from the sky, motionless and dead.

One bird kill occurred on New Year’s Eve, which was readily accepted as a bad omen for some.  Even I can admit: a showering of dead birds isn’t the best way to welcome a new year.

As conspiracy theories and apocalyptic fears amassed, reports revealed that the birds died of impact trauma, perhaps from hitting power lines or another large object.

But, ultimately, we were missing context.  Sure, we look to wildlife as an indicator of the general health of the environment, but this news story reminded me of something else: how little I knew about the world around me.

For most — myself included — relationships between local environmental agencies and the public  are often trying, especially when the two meet to discuss land and privilege compromises. As someone who communicates science and is studying how to do so effectively, I was reminded of this lacking relationship.

I wondered: We’re constantly learning about exotic and endangered species in tropical rain forests and mountains, but what about the happenings in our own backyards?

The reality is that these die-offs were hardly different from any others, yet they received hefty coverage because they happened on the last night of the year or shortly after. (By the way, James Gorman wrote an interesting piece in The New York Times, highlighting our tendency to hope for the supernatural).

Dead birds aside, it was a wakeup call for me to slow down and learn about what’s happening in my surroundings. I also think it demonstrates the need to fund and support more public outreach — for both children and adults — from the public agencies that work with natural resources.

Personally, I’m still surprised by the ubiquity of these events in the first place. They happen relatively often without the average person keeping track. Am I not keeping up with my community well enough — to know what’s normal ecologically, at least? Is it our responsibility to seek information or expect others to provide it?

I certainly don’t know how to achieve this balance, but think it’s crucial to think about.

If you’re interested in looking at bird kill data, here’s a link from the USGS Wildlife Health Center in Madison.

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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