Who’s Awarding Pinocchios for Environmental Journalism?

Article at NOLA.com, the online presence of the New Orleans Advocate/Times-Picayune:

Seafloor damage from BP spill vastly underestimated in rush for legal settlement


Published in the journal PLOS One in June, [Texas A&M researcher Paul] Montagna’s full analysis of his 10-year-old samples showed damage to seafloor organisms stretching across at least 124 square miles. That’s nearly two times larger than the 66-square-mile footprint described in the abbreviated report Montagna turned over for the disaster’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

That paragraph is displayed right under the following graphic:

“Oh, my!” you might say. “Seafloor creatures were damaged almost all the way to Destin!”

But wait just a minute…

Even though the title purports to show “Damage to Seafloor Creatures”, note the legend: these blobs portray the areas assessed by Montagna’s study. The little scale bar on the upper right is 20 miles; a square that size would enclose an area of 400 square miles.

It’s not hard to portray the areas actually impacted by the spill; in fact, the graphic is part of the paper (linked in the quote block above).

The scale on the upper image (A) is zoomed in on the Macondo blowout area. The scale of the lower image (B) is comparable to NOLA.com’s in-house graphic; you’ll note Southeastern Louisiana and the mouth of the Mississippi River on the upper left of the image.

The Montagna paper notes:

The footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill … was 321 km2  [124 mi2](Table 2). The most severe impacts were found in an area of approximately 58 km2 [22 mi2] around the Macondo well (Fig 5A). The footprint area of 321 km2 includes only the red and orange zones around the Macondo oil well, but not the coastal areas further to the north, which were likely affected by hypoxia of the “dead zone” (Fig 5B). The shape of the impact zone around the wellhead was approximately elliptical, stretched in an approximate southwest to northeast direction.

Emphasis mine.

The text of the NOLA.com reports the correct size of the assessed damage, but the combination of the headline, the graphic, and its title seem designed to create a lasting, and incorrect, impression of Gulf-wide devastation.

As Montagna’s Table 2 shows, less than 0.3% of the assessed area was rated as severe or moderate impact in the most recent study; 79% was assessed “no impact” or “pristine”.

Why did NOLA.com create an entirely new graphic to go along with the paper when an accurate graphic already existed to portray the true extent of the damage? Your guess is as good as mine, but I suspect it has something to do with advancing a narrative that 10 years out, wide swaths of the Gulf are still reeling from Macondo damage. That narrative is detached from reality.

This entry was posted in BP Spill, Energy, Environment, Louisiana, New Orleans and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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