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100 Days of Gushing Oil

The story was overwhelming. For days on end, from spring and into summer, oil burst from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico and polluted sea and shore. Throughout, the media covered the Deepwater Horizon crisis with conviction and focus.

This week, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a report detailing just how the media portrayed the worst environmental event in the nation’s history. The excellent analysis titled “100 Days of Gushing Oil, Eight Things to Know About How the Media Covered the Gulf Disaster”offers insight on a variety of fronts, but perhaps most curious is the pure amount of coverage produced.

Normally, the media’s attention span for a crisis extends about a week, depending on such circumstances as the number of people involved and other, competing news.

Remember the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007? That terrible story gripped the country….for a week. Then the media moved on.

“The massacre that left 33 people dead on the Virginia Tech campus was the biggest story in any given week that year, filling 51% of the newshole studied from April 15-20. But by the following week, coverage had plunged to 7%, and the week after that, it virtually vanished,” Pew reported.

After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, bloggers and those populating other social media platforms did move on to other topics. But the mainstream media, particularly broadcast media (read CNN’s Anderson Cooper) kept on top of the story.

Why?

Think back to the coverage and what sticks in your mind? Pictures of oil soaked birds. Or of ugly brown oil plumes spread across the water. Perhaps the most gripping video was the oil bursting forth from the ocean floor. Yes, this was a visual story, fueled by the never ending gushing taking place.

“The oil spill was by far the dominant story in the mainstream news media in the 100-day period after the explosion, accounting for 22% of the newshole—almost double the next biggest story. In the 14 full weeks included in this study, the disaster finished among the top three weekly stories 14 times. And it registered as the No. 1 story in nine of those weeks,” Pew reported.

“The spill story generated considerably less attention in social media on blogs, Twitter and You Tube. Among blogs, for example, it made the roster of top stories five times in 14 weeks. But during those weeks one theme resonated—skepticism toward almost all the principals in the story.”

In many crises, the public gets fatigued with the subject even before the media moves on, creating the perception the media “milk” the event. But in this case, the public’s fascination appears to have matched the coverage.

“Often between 50% and 60% of Americans said they were following the story ‘very closely’ during these 100 days. That surpassed the level of public interest during the most critical moments of the health care reform debate,” according to Pew.

Let’s see. Which was more visual? Health care debate? Oil disaster?

Hmmm.

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