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Coverage of Oil Spill Has Been Good, Getting Better

Has the media provided enough coverage of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico?

For my part I believe the amount of coverage, which has been significant, has been weighted properly, yes. The loss of human life, the potentially devastating effect on the marine life and the coastline, and the numbing economic impact makes it a blockbuster story.

And, of course, there are the residual political implications that the partisan media will dine on for months -- maybe even years. Is this Obama's Katrina? [sigh]

As to the coverage itself, I would have preferred it to be a little less reactive, and more proactive with more emphasis on the critical, investigative reporting.

But that's nitpicking. There are also signs the press is working its way to the front of this story as it learns more about it, and assigns more resources to its coverage.

So I was heartened, then, to discover that The Pew Research Center produced a poll last week in its latest "News Interest Index" installment, that the public, indeed, has shown more interest in this story than any other, and by a large margin.

I was downright shocked to learn that in this same report, the amount of coverage actually fell a bit short of the public's demand to learn more about this unfolding disaster.

While 49 percent of the public said the oil leak was the story they most closely followed when the poll was conducted May 13-16, only 17 percent of news coverage was dedicated to the leak.

In this day and age of the short attention span, the sound bite, and the vicious, 24-hour news cycle, it is close to unheard of for one story, which at the time was entering its fourth week, to still have such strong legs.

For more on the methodology of this poll you can go here, but essentially the poll measures the amount of news coverage dedicated to the top stories "from top news organizations across five major sectors of the media: newspapers, network television, cable television, radio and the internet."

While the 49-17 split looks completely lopsided, it is important to remember that devoting 17 percent of their time and newshole to one story really is a significant amount. For perspective, consider a newspaper using almost one-fifth of its newshole on just one story.

What makes these numbers even more eye-opening is when measured against the news that was competing for time and space during this same period.

Over the past five weeks, we've seen a failed terrorist attack in Times Square, a nominee put forth for the Supreme Court, yet another brewing worldwide fiscal disaster, a change in leadership in Great Britain, once-in-lifetime flooding in Nashville, and, oh by the way, those two wars.

So if we can agree that the media has at least come close to allotting proper resources to this story, and that, sadly, it is becoming clearer there is no end in sight for this unfolding disaster, how is it using its significant resources to treat this story?

Today I randomly went to three of our major newspapers' websites to see what they were reporting in their lead stories, and got three fairly compelling angles.

This was the lede in the USA Today story:

The nearly five-week effort to stem the Gulf of Mexico oil spill enters a critical phase this week as engineers plan to shoot thick mud into a blown-out underwater well, the latest tactic in an increasingly desperate attempt to contain the disaster.

The Wall Street Journal:

Crude gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and washing ashore in Louisiana is exposing how ill-prepared the U.S. has been to respond to a major offshore oil spill. In the fight to limit environmental damage from the month-old spill--which is on track to rival the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in size--BP PLC executives, government officials, and scientists are learning as they go, even though the industry has been drilling in the Gulf for decades and has 77 rigs operating there, according to ODS-Petrodata, a research firm.

The Washington Post:

In the days after the immensity of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico became clear, some Nature Conservancy supporters took to the organization's Web site to vent their anger. What (the supporters) didn't know was that the Nature Conservancy lists BP as one of its business partners. The Conservancy also has given BP a seat on its International Leadership Council and has accepted nearly $10 million in cash and land contributions from BP and affiliated corporations over the years.

Three papers, three different angles. I'd say that's well done.

It's clear as this disaster enters its fifth week that the press is finding its stride, turning over the heavy stones to expose hidden secrets, and calling power into account.

What's also becoming painfully clear is that there is still no end in sight to this unfolding mess. Let's hope that when the leak is finally plugged, the media continues its work to drill even deeper and get to the bottom of it.

(Got a tip, a gripe, or some kudos? Send 'em along.)