Gulf Coast Stations Blanket Oil Mess

THE FEELING is all too familiar for New Orleans reporters and residents—the growing dread as an ominous dark mass inches closer to land. Not five years removed from the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, newsrooms at stations up and down the Gulf Coast are putting all resources into covering the devastating BP oil spill off their shores. With hurricane season officially underway, comparisons to storm coverage— and even Katrina itself—abound.

While Katrina claimed almost 2,000 lives, many are drawing a parallel between covering the storm and covering the spill. “As bad as it was, Katrina came, stopped and left us with a mess,” says WVUE New Orleans President/General Manager Joe Cook. “We’re not sure how long this one will go on for.”

The media presence in the Gulf Coast region has swelled as BP’s efforts to stem the fl ow have failed in recent weeks. But stations in New Orleans, Mobile- Pensacola and Houston, among others, have been on top of the story ever since the April 20 explosion that killed 11. For them, it’s a local story about the environment; industries such as tourism, fishing and energy; and crippling traffi c when the likes of President Obama come to town.

“It’s a massive story, a monumental story,” says KHOU Houston Executive News Director Keith Connors. “I don’t see us doing a newscast that doesn’t report on it for [months].”

Stations are getting creative to get to the heart of the story. Some are renting helicopters and chartering boats for the day, or relying on network partners for aerial shots. “It’s not the easiest story to cover,” says WWL New Orleans News Director Chris Slaughter, who likens the spill to “an extremely slow-moving hurricane.”

WVUE hired not only a boat, but a diver to shoot up-close video of the spill. “We went underwater right at the rig,” says News Director Mikel Schaefer.

Access to vital sites and figures and timely information has been good, not great. “We get the same information the public is getting,” says WEAR Mobile-Pensacola General Manager Terry Cole. Some believe the networks seem to be getting preferential treatment: “BP is more willing to grant access to the national media than the local media,” Connors says. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not trying.”

Stations are turning up a number of compelling local stories. Houston stations are focusing on BP, which has a giant headquarters in DMA No. 10. KBMT Beaumont News Director Paul Bergen says his newsroom is looking into a business story on the various industries that have popped up related to the spill, and has aired a lighter report on a restaurant scrapping an all-you-can-eat seafood promotion. KING Seattle environmental reporter Gary Chittim flew in to provide sister Belo stations with a batch of insightful environmental pieces.

News crews, knowing they’re first responders to a rare and unique tragedy, are running on adrenaline these days. “This may be the biggest story anyone in this market covers,” says WVUE’s Cook. “And a lot of them covered Katrina.”

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Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.