Thursday, November 1, 2012

Slick reporting: the Guardian gets spun by Greenpeace

Whales don't bother me, and I try not to bother them. On the whole, I'm against oil spills and the unnecessary killing of whales. But regardless of that, I prefer my newspapers to deal in facts rather than unfounded prejudices or hysterical assumptions. Nonetheless, I still read the Guardian.

Fact: This is a dead whale. Everything else is speculation
So I was less than impressed by a Guardian article last week implying that the US authorities had suppressed evidence that the Deepwater Horizon spill was responsible for killing a number of whales. There's an irony in the fact that whales have a lot to thank the oil industry for, since its emergence led to a massive reduction in whaling when we realised that fossil oil was a lot better for lighting homes than whale oil. But that's another story.

My job means I know a bit about oil spills without being an expert, but you don't need to be an expert to see that the Guardian's correspondent was being led by the nose. This is a growing problem in journalism, and one that I've touched on before: many journalists let their guard down as soon as they're presented with research that reflects their own beliefs or seems obvious. So when Greenpeace (hardly the most objective of sources) told US Environment Correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg that evidence of whale deaths was being suppressed, she compliantly repeated the activists' line.

In short, Greenpeace was able to get emails proving that the US National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration had prevented the release of photos showing a dead sperm whale. So far, so good. Suppression of information should always be questioned by journalists, and I don't blame Greenpeace for taking the partisan line it did: they're activists. That's their job.

Goldenberg reports Greenpeace's take on the story, but doesn't seem to have bothered contacting the NOAA to ask why the pictures were suppressed, preferring to speculate. To her credit, she does report that the NOAA admits it has no idea how the whale died. She also adds that there are 1,200 whales in the Gulf of Mexico, which should have made her stop and think. 

The discerning reader might ask whether one whale dead from unknown causes – out of a population of 1,200 – is really a story at all. The editors, perhaps aware of the thinness of the story, published three very similar pictures of the whale, even though the Guardian usually makes do with one picture and leaves the printing of several near-identical pictures to the Daily Mail. So it's clear that an emotional reaction was being sought

It then published the story under the very dubious headline 'US downplayed effect of Deepwater oil spill on whales, emails reveal'. The US didn't downplay the effect; it didn't know what the effect was. Nor does Greenpeace, as its press release freely admits.

I've got a particular problem with this paragraph:
NOAA did put out a press release about the dead whale. However, the release was edited and shortened in a way which appeared to minimise the effects of oil on whales
If you read the press release, it's clear that the NOAA did nothing of the sort. It did what any science-based agency should do: it reported the known facts unsensationally without speculating or pursuing a separate agenda. Of course that wasn't good enough for Greenpeace, which naturally wants to demonise the oil industry. As I've said, they're activists and that's their job. But that paragraph could have been written by Greenpeace, and a newspaper shouldn't be colluding with anyone to spin the news. 

That leaves the Guardian in the embarrassing position of seeming less objective than the activists who provided the story.

Moral: Believe what you want, unless you're a journalist.