March 30, 2011

Exxon Valdez to Deepwater Horizon – event looks at spills, shifting media landscape

News and Information

Last Aprils Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico invited comparisons with the April 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska on many fronts.

This Saturday at the UW, local and nationally known speakers will compare the spills and look in particular at how people and organizations told stories about the two events. While recent conference have examined the Deepwater Horizon spill from journalistic and emergency response perspectives, this is the first to look at a wide range of communications issues surrounding the two disasters.

Editorial cartoons, like this one on display at the Allen Library research commons, were one way of telling the story of the Exxon Valdez spill.

University of Washington

Editorial cartoons, like this one on display at the Allen Library research commons, were one way of telling the story of the Exxon Valdez spill.

“SEAchange 2011: From Exxon Valdez to Deepwater Horizon: Telling Tales of Environmental Disaster, Justice and Recovery,” is a day-long event thats free and open to the public, but spaces are limited and registration is required. To sign up click on “ticket information” at the registration website.

Main stage speakers include NPRs science reporter Richard Harris, NOAAs incident operations coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon spill and a noted Seattle seafood chef who is also a Gulf native.  Simultaneously there will be discussion groups on topics with titles such as, “Sea turtle SOS,” “How safe is your seafood?” and “Media Literacy – Who posted this?”

YouTube, Twitter and blogs – none of which even existed at the time of the Alaskan oil spill – all helped convey the situation unfolding in the Gulf. Last springs oil spill “inspired citizens, scientists, engineers, lawyers and others to fill what they saw as an information vacuum, while federal officials and mainstream media outlets struggled to accurately tell a story that amplified and morphed at breakneck speed,” according to the SEAchange website.

“For example, the Deepwater Horizon spill can be seen as a ‘YouTube disaster. Many people watched the spill unfold directly on their computer screens without the filter of CNN or other news agencies,” says Usha Lee McFarling, science journalist, artist in residence with the UW Department of Communications and one of the event organizers. “Social media also played a big role. One of our speakers is Josh Simpson, who created a false Twitter feed really taking BP to task for its early statements. Many people could not tell this sardonic feed from the real statements made by BP.

“At the same time, more traditional communication – from community meetings to outreach about seafood safety in various languages and insightful documentary films – have been used with great impact after both spills.”

Some of the birds killed by the Exxon Valdez spill, part of the Burke museums collection, are displayed at the Allen Library as a lead up to Saturdays conference. The bird here is one of 29 red-faced cormorants the Burke has, 26 of which were obtained after the spill.

University of Washington

Some of the birds killed by the Exxon Valdez spill, part of the Burke museums collection, are displayed at the Allen Library as a lead up to Saturdays conference. The bird here is one of 29 red-faced cormorants the Burke has, 26 of which were obtained after the spill.

SEAchange attendees will also hear from fishermen, First Nations people and other victims who often felt invisible and left out of mainstream communication loops, McFarling says.

With Puget Sound in the UWs backyard, the conference also is an opportunity to talk about local waters that are vulnerable to oil spills.

The conference runs from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the research commons of Allen Library. About 12 hours after registering, participants will receive login information for a virtual-summit site that will allow SEAchange participants to interact via social media before, during and after the event. One can even “attend” the conference remotely.

Conference sponsors are the UW Department of Communications, the Master of Communications in Digital Media program, University Libraries and the College of the Environment.

Depending on the feedback from this event, there may be SEAchange events focused on other topics every year or two, according to David Domke, chair of the UW communications department and leader of the event organizers.