September 25, 2017

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The Gulf of Perception

The Gulf of Perception

If old movies taught us anything, it is when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. What happens in today’s instant news environment when perception becomes fact?

Social media journalist and content specialist Jeff Cutler recently returned from two weeks covering the Deepwater Horizon/BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Which is more shocking to you, the size of the oil spill or that there are social media journalists?

Cutler, a 21 year journalism veteran, was hired with editorial freedom by the data company Environmental Data Resources (EDR). He was tasked to create social content on their web site in video, photos, and text. According to Cutler, they “wanted a journalist in the Gulf who is going to report what we can’t see from here and maybe what we’re not getting from other news organizations.” Then tell the stories using the tools of social media: blog posts, Flickr for photos, Blip and YouTube for videos and Twitter and Facebook to promote the content.

Cutler is the social media trainer for the Society of Professional Journalists and teaches journalists how to listen and communicate with their audience before, after, and when developing stories. He story credits include the Boston Herald, National Public Radio (NPR) and the New England Sports Network (NESN) and has spoken at numerous emerging media events.

After two weeks of interviewing university professors, government officials and people of every walk of life, what was his biggest takeaway?

“For me, it was the realization that perception is stronger than reality for most of the world… Anywhere else in the country north of the Gulf Region they have signs up saying ‘we don’t serve Gulf seafood’ because they’re afraid of what may have already happened to the seafood. There are people in Georgia and North Carolina that … every year, for their vacation is go to Orange Beach in Alabama, or Gulfport in Mississippi. And the beaches there are white-sand gorgeous, better than any Caribbean beach… and they were deserted at their peak season… and communities are down more than $1-billion in tourist revenue.”

Let me be clear, I am not trying to minimize the impact of what did happen, but the story, as told by the media, appeared to have its own unintended, significant impact.

“The reason, that I conclude that these beaches are deserted,” believes Cutler, “is that everyone thought a layer of oil, like a tidal wave of oil, was up on the beaches and that they would be slugging through tar … and that the white sand was all destroyed. That’s not the case.” This from a man who started with the goal of wanting to juggle tar balls, but found a much different story. It was the use of social media spreading of his stories that caught my attention – and an apparent disparity between was I was hearing and seeing.

Why was there such a great disparity between media reports – some optmitic and some dire? Was it “print the legend” or the same issues that drove early reporters, or more specifically, their editors?

“When people went down there to the Gulf they were talking about 5-million barrels of oil being released. This was is in their mind, their editor’s mind, their producer’s mind, so they get someone down there with a camera and if they don’t see oil, then it’s a non-story.”

With amazingly shrinking news budgets, having a “non-story” was not an option.

“They would go to the estuaries and the areas where the oil was most prevalent and that was what you saw on camera, and in the newspaper. And that caused a whole world to react to the oil spill as they did. Now a lot of news organizations have about-faced and told the story they probably could have told before: the beaches are cleaned up. The bad news has already taken its toll.”

The explosion of the well was a huge factor. A professor at Tulane University told Cutler that during Katrina “a bunch of oil wells were snapped off. Oil like this spilled into the Gulf during Katrina the whole time. Did we see any news on that? No, we didn’t.” Despite being very active, New Orleans is still in recovery mode.

It does make you wonder what other legends became fact.

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