All Things Not Considered in NPR's Oil Drilling Coverage

Yesterday afternoon President Obama shocked the country when he announced plans to open parts of the Atlantic and Alaskan coasts to oil drilling. Though the Pacific Coast was left untouched, the move could open up huge expanses of ocean elsewhere.

Many environmentalists treated the news as a betrayal and yet another delay in the move away from a fossil fuel economy. Business leaders were generally heartened by the news. Some Republicans expressed cautious optimism about the President's willingness to compromise, though others saw the move as thinly-veiled politics.

News organizations, meanwhile, treated the news as the surprise it was, with banner headlines and lead stories on broadcasts. You can read about the decision many places on the Web. I'd like to discuss, instead, how the news has been covered, particularly by National Public Radio. I believe NPR missed a chance to thoroughly cover the story. Listeners who first learned about the decision during their commutes home yesterday afternoon and on their way to work today, thus, missed a chance to fully understand a decision whose implications may reverberate for decades.

National Public Radio rightly decided to lead All Things Considered with Scott Horseley's report on Obama's decision on offshore drilling. As NPR's White House correspondent, Horseley focused primarily on the politics of the announcement. His report included Obama's statements justifying the decision as well as a sound bite from Florida Senator Lindsey Graham expressing what it meant for Republicans. It also included a reaction to the announcement by energy industry analyst Phil Flynn.

Horsely's four minute piece described the decision as one “sure to turn some green energy advocates red” and briefly included two of those advocates' voices: a snippet of a statement from the League of Conservation Voters and part of an interview with National Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke. Beinecke expressed her organization's concern about “some of the most sensitive marine environments in the country.”

Missing from NPR's follow-up coverage, though, was significant analysis of the decision from those advocates' perspectives or from other, perhaps more neutral analysts. By contrast, NPR has since devoted much of its coverage to oil industry reaction beyond Flynn's analysis in the initial story.

Immediately following Horseley's report, NPR aired four and a half minutes of discussion between All Things Considered Host Robert Siegel and Ben Cahill, an oil industry analyst from PFC Energy, about what the news meant for the oil business. What NPR didn't do is find someone who could talk about what the decision means for the ocean, for the global environment, and for economies and community health near the proposed drilling areas. Such a source needed not be Beinecke or other environmentalists. A marine scientist, a climatologist, or a geologist could have provided valuable analysis of the decision's implications. If a news outlet wants to consider all things related to a society, it must not only consider that society's business, but its politics, its people, and its natural surroundings. All of those forces and more – business included – shape a society, a country and a world.

Today brought Morning Edition and a story by Scott Finn titled “Environmentalists Question Offshore Drilling Plan.” Despite the headline, the only concern expressed in the three-minute piece came from Kathly Douglas, a St. Petersburg power walker and opponent of oil drilling. I don't think the power of citizen and community voices should be discounted and I'm cautious about which voices we call authoritative, but if Douglas had further background and credibility as an opponent of the drilling, Finn did not present her credentials (A simple Google search shows she's involved with a regional branch of the Sierra Club focused on coastal issues in Florida, though that background wasn't noted by Finn). As it turns out, in a piece advertised as discussing opposition to the drilling, hers was the lone voice expressing such opposition. Finn did include other St. Pete Beach visitors not as concerned as Douglas about the possibility of drilling. He also spoke with David Mica, the executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, who welcomed the President's decision. In fact, the piece also included the only scientific voice NPR has yet aired reflecting upon this story, the University of South Florida's Al Hine, who countered claims that there might not be enough oil off the Florida coast to justify the drilling.

Yesterday afternoon, Scott Neuman (Apparently only Scotts are reporting this story) wrote an accompanying story for NPR's Web site that more deeply explores this topic. He presented detailed information on government estimates of how much oil and gas might be found off the Atlantic coast. He also introduced Oceana, another environmental organization opposed to the drilling, further described the historical context of the drilling and explained what other obstacles have to be surmounted before drilling can start. Still, that's the limit of NPR's added coverage. While I applaud the network's use of the Web to deepen its coverage, I question how many listeners actually decided to pursue that further coverage. I also wonder why it hasn't used the Web to deepen its analysis (and provide interpretations beyond Cahill's).

Reporters working on tight deadlines are not obligated to devote precisely equal amounts of time to sources on different sides of controversial topics, particularly complex, ongoing discussions that involve many more than two sides. They should, however, strive to do so. Journalists must make far more complicated judgments about how they weigh the voices included in their reporting. They have to take care not to perpetuate the falsely dichotomous conflict narratives so prevalent in contemporary news coverage, but they also have to provide perspectives of comparable authority when covering controversial topics (particularly when they specifically refer to controversy in their stories).

Unless something changes by the time today's All Things Considered airs, which East Coast listeners will have heard by the time this entry posts, the network will have missed its chance to provide a thorough introduction to this very significant news. The same argument could rightly have been made if NPR spoke predominantly with Beinecke and her allies and minimized its exploration of oil industry voices.

Even if there is substantive follow-up of the story this evening, the damage has been done. NPR has already framed the decision in audiences' minds without providing thorough analysis or context.