If the Gulf oil spill coverage was a test of network news operations "battered" by staffing cutbacks, many of those outlets appeared to pass the test with coverage that humanized the story and refrained from turning it into "another polarizing and political saga," despite some temptation to do so.
That was the conclusion of a study of coverage by national news outlets by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The oil spill was primarily a TV story, according to PEJ, with cable providing the most coverage with 31% of the airtime studies, followed closely by network news at 29%. CNN gave it the most airtime at 42% of its news hole, followed in the cable sector by MSNBC with 32%, and Fox News Channel with 18% (the study does not include local broadcast TV or regional cable network news).
According to PEJ, media outlets "rose to the occasion" when covering a complicated, often technical, long-running story that included sometimes competing storylines that "did not break down along predictable political and idological lines.
The study also concluded that online was a big value-added outlet, providing details that would have been tough to convey.
"In short, the oil spill disaster was a unique story that tested a news industry battered by staffing cutbacks, decreasing revenues, and shrinking ambition," said PEJ in announcing the results. "It was a test that much of the media seemed to pass.
PEJ's conclusions were based on 2,866 stories about the spill from April 20 to July 28.
The study identified eight major points about the coverage: The spill was the dominant story in the media over those 100 days; cleanup and containment were the lead storylines; the White House received mixed coverage for its role; BP was the clear antagonist; it was primarily a TV story; it was much less of a story on blogs and social media; it put a spotlight on the value of interactive Web features like PBS' oil leak widget; and the public's interest in the story matched or even exceeded that of the media.