Two articles have clashed in my brain with a resounding cacophony: a Tribune Bureau/Seattle Times headline screamed Obama vows 90% cleanup of oil this summer and, in Nieman Reports, Douglas Rushkoff asserted that “There’s More To Being A Journalist Than Hitting The ‘Publish’ Button.”

I read the Obama story slack-jawed because no where, no where, did the reporters (there are two in the byline) challenge the promise made in the headline. It was classic journalism-as-stenography, I thought as I read:

The president vowed that the administration and BP would clean up “90 percent” of the oil before the end of the summer. But he also spoke of damage to the Gulf region that would linger for years.

Heck, I might have swallowed a 90 percent clean up promise, if I were just now tuning in to this story. Or if I were just a blogger, an “amateur” biased “to the immediate” as Rushkoff describes the Internet in his 1076-word paean to traditional (whatever that is) journalism.

A promise to clean up 90 percent of the blowout is so preposterous, I couldn’t believe that the reporters — or the copy editor — failed to engage in a reality check.

As I wrote on June 3rd (tip to Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times), according to NOAA we will be “lucky to clean up 20 percent of the tens of millions of gallons of oil fouling the Gulf of Mexico… It’s apparently the accepted norm that we can clean up only 20 percent of an oil spill.”

What Is A Professional Journalist?

With these very two different assertions in mind — 20 percent from scientists versus 90 percent from a politician — let’s look at Rushkoff’s description of what makes a “professional” journalist:

A professional newsperson is someone who is not only trained to pursue a story and deconstruct propaganda, but someone who has been paid to spend the time and energy required to do so effectively. […] Without a crew of equally qualified—if not equally funded—professionals to analyze and challenge these agencies’ fictions, we are defenseless against them.

So … who here believes that the Tribune’s Washington bureau reporters “deconstructed propaganda” in this news article?

Rushkoff is correct: the Internet changes things. There is no need for stenographic (“he said/she said”) journalism today. We can watch the President’s speech on TV in real time, watch it on the Internet in real time, read the text of the speech afterwards or watch the speech on YouTube if we missed it.

We don’t need reporters, journalists, to tell us what the President said.

We need journalists — paid or “amateur” — to put those words into context. That’s why sites like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com are so popular and important.

Why A 90 Percent Clean Up Promise Is Misleading

Let’s turn back to that outrageous, unchallenged and completely unrealistic 90 percent clean up promise.

From LiveScience, 29 April 2010, we learn that recovery — however that is defined — is a dismal science:

[F]or an oil spill at sea, typically only 10 to 15 percent of the oil is recovered, Gerald Graham, president of Worldocean Consulting, a marine oil spill prevention and response planning firm based in British Columbia, told LiveScience.

[…]

“Despite spending $2 billion dollars and using every known clean-up method there was, they recovered 8 percent of the spilled Exxon Valdez oil,” said Jeffrey Short, Pacific science director for Oceana, a Washington, D.C.–based ocean conservation organization. “That is typical of these exercises when you have a large marine oil spill. You’re doing really great if you [get] 20 percent.”

Let me put this excerpt into perspective: most oil drilling is not a mile below the surface of the ocean. In 2007, Wired explained that the “ultradeep frontier holds the industry’s best hope for big new discoveries” while noting both the newness of these drilling techniques and the associated unknowns and risks. These types of wells are on the frontier, the edge, of oil extraction. They aren’t the norm.

And most spills are, well, spills, that is, one-off events with a fixed quantity of oil. Most are not lingering blowouts that spew millions of gallons of oil.

With these two reality checks in mind, how likely is it that in this instance — a deep-water well blowout, not a spill — we can realistically expect to hit the 10-20 percent recovery rates described as “typical” by these experts?

I suggest the answer is unlikely.

Every estimate about this well to-date has been ballparked low and then steadily revised upward. The feds revised the estimated flow again yesterday. We’ve gone from 1,000 barrels per day to 60,000 barrels per day, with the media rarely reporting that these estimates are floors, not ceilings. In fact, as time goes by we are edging closer to the original federal “worst case” scenario.

This estimate is equally unrealistic.

That’s Not What Obama Said

I could not understand why this claim appeared unchallenged. Then a traitorous thought crept in: maybe that’s not what the President said. Bingo! Here’s what Obama said, in the fourth paragraph of the speech:

As a result of these efforts, we’ve directed BP to mobilize additional equipment and technology. And in the coming weeks and days, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well. This is until the company finishes drilling a relief well later in the summer that’s expected to stop the leak completely.

The President did not say that BP would clean up 90 percent of the blowout. He said that until a relief well can turn it off, BP is implementing a series of efforts that, if they all work 100 percent, will eventually capture (ie, “recover”) up to 90 percent of the oil surging out of the well.

“Clean up” includes the millions of gallons already released into the Gulf and the mess that has already washed ashore in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi and is headed to Florida.

“Capture” seems to mean an eventual reduction in the quantity of oil that leaves the scene and has to be cleaned up (by man or nature).

So these “professional newspersons” not only failed to put the claim into context, but they misrepresented what Obama actually promised. Why? I don’t know, but AP noted optimism was required to reach 90 percent containment but went no further, providing no data on typical recovery rates.

Thus, I ask you this: if two Tribune reporters mischaracterized something the President said in the opening of this speech, and then both they and AP failed to provide context for the claim based on historical data, why should I — why should we — trust the “professionals”?

This is not a knee-jerk rebuttal to Rushkoff’s essay: it’s an example of day-to-day journalism, by “professionals”, that is so off the mark as to render his argument about the merits of “professional newspersons” idealistic, misguided and misplaced.

Professional journalists do not have a monopoly on speaking truth to power. And the fact that someone is employed as a professional journalist does not mean that those words are de facto crafted with authority and integrity.

The (depressing) lesson seems clear: caveat lector.

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KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
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