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The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: News Media Fantasy Versus Reality

3559 words - 14 pages

The purpose of this research paper was to investigate the news media’s depiction of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The coverage provided by the newspapers was compared to that of scientific journals to access their validity and insight. The reactions the coverage evoked on the public were also studied. The paper specifically addressed the media’s portrayal of the oil company versus that of environmental groups. It was found that the news media did not include the benefits the oil company had had on the people and economy of Alaska. It was also found that up until 1989, many Alaskans were opposed to environmental groups. Next, the paper followed the role the media played on the public’s emotions and subsequent government policy. In addition, the use of exaggerated statistics in the wake of the spill are examined and corrected. Finally, the debate over the recovery of the area is tackled. And while the debate remains open, the apparent discrepancies in data are discussed.
On March 27, 1989 the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran ashore in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling approximately 11 million gallons of crude oil. The oil soon spread into the waters of south-central Alaska from the sound of Kodiak Island to the Kenai Peninsula (refer to Figure 1 for a map of the area). Almost immediately, news media arrived at the site reporting images of oil-stained beaches and wildlife to the masses. News coverage centered around the environmental devastation which would result from the spill. The coverage, for the most part, reinforced stereotypes of Alaska, as a pristine wilderness and Exxon as a greedy, irresponsible oil company. These images stressed the negative consequences of the spills and ignored the positive effects oil companies have had for Alaska. The news media often presented exaggerated statistics of marine bird death rates and discouraging assessments for the future of Alaska wildlife. They failed to include with these evaluations any sources of error in the data they disclosed. For example, inconclusive data surrounding specific species prior to the spill in Prince William Sound or the inexperience scientists had in dealing with a spill of this magnitude. This paper will focus on investigating the news media’s coverage of the spill, in light of scientific research performed, on the environmental impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The environmental impacts studied will demonstrate the errors in the news media’s reporting and ultimate irresponsible reporting of the spill.

The Role of Environmental Groups and Exxon in Alaska:
The news media often chose to highlight the views of environmental groups who had originally been opposed to Exxon’s drilling. These groups “traditionally feared oil development and oil tanker traffic in Alaska, and the opposed the trans-Alaska pipeline from the onset” (Birkland, 1998). They would, therefore, typically offer opinions that were most vehemently against Exxon...

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