When Zachary Goldstein, contributing writer for the Florida State View, traveled to Dauphin Island on the Gulf Coast to cover the oil spill for his first big assignment, he knew it wouldn’t be easy. But he ran into more roadblocks than he thought.
Goldstein, a junior at Florida State University, drove to the island and passed the first guarded checkpoint without a problem, but he was later denied access when he tried to photograph another part of the beach. A security officer led him to the BP official who was in charge of the clean-up efforts on the island. Initially, the BP official agreed to let Goldstein have access to the restricted part of the island, but after Goldstein interviewed him about cleanup efforts, he changed his mind.
”After I had the interview, it was like a switch and flip,” Goldstein said. ”[The BP official] said ‘Well, I’ll have somebody escort you around the compound up here, but unless you want to take a ride in a sheriff’s car, you can’t go down to the west end of the island and get access to it.”
The official told him it was a liability issue, but Goldstein thinks otherwise.
”It just seemed like a big excuse. It seemed almost Big Brother-ish to a point,” Goldstein said. But he wasn’t willing to push the issue. ”Being a student and having my whole future career in front of me, I didn’t want to [go to jail] at this point.”
Fighting for access
On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 rig workers and setting off a gusher of oil from the underground well in the Gulf of Mexico. Journalists flocked to the Gulf Coast to report on the damage. Thousands of gallons of oil leaked into the water and washed up onto the coast every day, directly affecting coastal cities and the wildlife of the area in possibly the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
It’s important for student journalists to cover events and issues that affect their community, said Jock Lauterer, Director of the Carolina Community Media Project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
”Local media who are dug into the local power structure usually have better access than anybody else because they’re so local,” Lauterer said. ”That’s one of the advantages of being a community journalist in a hard breaking news situation. It’s equally important, if not more important, for student journalists to have access to news sites. After all, they’re the journalists of tomorrow.”
Student journalists across the Gulf Coast experienced varying degrees of access — some were completely turned away from officials and beaches, while others were able to get most of the access they needed.
”Local journalists — including student newspapers, of course — are the people who are most concerned about local issues,” said Neil Ralston, Vice President for Campus Chapter Affairs at the Society of Professional Journalists. ”They’re the ones who do the most reporting on the issues that matter most to people in the area.”
When Don Aime, editor-in-chief of The Lion’s Roar at Southeastern Louisiana University, went to his first — and only — press conference at the Robert Command Center, the command point of oil spill response in Louisiana, the security was ”unbelievable.”
”You had to get checked in at the gate and you had to be escorted back to the compound, or the facility, and when you get out of your vehicles they tell you to keep all of your equipment pointed toward the ground or the sky — it was very much a controlled situation,” Aime said.
The press conference was the only one The Lion’s Roar staff was allowed to attend before the conferences became restricted to larger media organizations.
Although the cleanup is a coordinated effort by the U.S. Coast Guard and BP, Aime said BP is ”the one actually running the show.” When the newspaper called BP officials, Aime said they were given the runaround and kept being directed to a company website, which is now the only source they can use for up-to-date information and photos of the affected areas.
Aime said although the website was helpful, the lack of direct access was frustrating and directly affected their coverage of the spill.
”This is what we do, is to expose the news and get it out there for the public and when companies hold the door keys, they can quickly shut you down and deny you that access,” Aime said. ”It makes our job a lot more difficult because we basically have to report on the fact that we have nothing. I guess that’s just par for the course.”
Communication only through press conferences can be a form of media control for some journalists.
”The mechanism of a press conference is ideal in a fast moving emergency situation when you’re trying to get urgent information out to a lot of people at once,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. ”But what it’s not ideal for is giving any depth of understanding or any opportunity for people to develop their own individualized stories. Having occasional group press conferences is not a substitute for making yourself available for more in-depth interviews. In a typical press conference setting, you’re lucky if you get to ask two questions and then you’re done. If you’re a journalist who’s trying to develop an enterprise story or an investigative piece, that’s just not enough access for you.”
Claire Regan, an ethics fellow for the Poynter Institute and associate managing editor for the Staten Island Advance, said that it’s unjustified if BP is restricting access.
”That’s not a good way to handle what is essentially a public relations crisis,” Regan said. ”Student journalists should not be deterred. They should forge ahead and demand the same access.”
Students at The Oracle, the student newspaper of University of South Florida at Tampa, said most of their oil spill coverage revolved around USF researchers who were studying its effects. The students were able to get some interviews and stories, but lately, researchers have been less eager to disclose what they’re finding unless they hold a press conference.
”Whenever we’ve gone out we’ve asked what they’ve found so far and what the preliminary results of their research are, the answers have been the same every time: ‘We’re not ready to discuss that yet,’ and basically it’s because they can’t,” said Brittany Cerny, staff writer for The Oracle.
Cerny said she wasn’t sure if the researchers can’t discuss it because they were told not to by BP or other officials, or if they just don’t want to announce misinformation.
Trying new approaches
Students covering the spill in less affected areas, like Alabama, were able to gain greater access to beaches and cleanup areas.
Before the establishment of the safety zone by the Coast Guard, Brian Woodham, associate copy editor for The Auburn Plainsman at Auburn University in Alabama, had little trouble gaining access to areas impacted by the spill. He said the public beaches he went to were open and that BP cleanup crews didn’t harass him when he took pictures of them working.
Woodham’s coverage focused on the affected areas in Alabama, but he traveled further west along the Gulf Coast in July. While there, he tried to gain access to one of the Vessels of Opportunity, boats operated by local fisherman to help with wildlife rescue, response activities and deploying containment and sorbent boom, a tube with filling that helps absorb oil.
Woodham would be required to take a four-hour Hazmat training class before he’s allowed onboard, but he had concerns it wouldn’t happen because the captain might be worried about possible repercussions from BP.
Woodham also tried to embed with the Coast Guard, but he said it would be difficult with major media organizations getting priority. At press time, Woodham was still waiting to hear back from the Coast Guard.
When the Coast Guard announced in late June that it was enforcing a new ”20-meter safety zone,” journalists lost even more access to certain affected areas. Photos could no longer be taken of the damage up-close and many clean-up workers declined to talk for fear of losing their jobs. Violation of the safety zone could result in a $40,000 civil penalty and class D felony.
The Coast Guard later revised the policy to say that credentialed media could have access as long as there were no safety concerns in the area.
The Coast Guard and BP’s media relations did not return multiple calls for comment for this story.
It’s harder for student media and small community papers to deal with restrictions and fees because they don’t have as many financial resources as large media corporations, Lauterer said.
”Just the threat of a lawsuit or libel suit is enough to scare some small publishers just because there’s not the sort of fallback, deep pockets financially,” Lauterer said. ”That’s very troubling, that would really bother me. Such fines would put a chilling effect on my coverage if I were a news manager of a student paper.”
Lauterer said fewer restrictions on media access would be a better option in the Gulf Coast.
”The public’s right to know is not served by overzealous regulation and student journalists are actually getting the wrong message when they’re being told ‘you can’t cover this story’ or ‘you have to work extra hard,”’ Lauterer said. ”That would tend to make me pretty cynical if I were a student journalist denied access to a news site. So I think that’s something that ought to be contested and sounds like a very real issue to me.”
However, Regan said that restrictions on access are sometimes justified.
”If it’s a safety issue, then it’s justified,” Regan said. ”Sometimes journalists are held back [from crime scenes] for good reason because they could be in danger if they get too close. If that’s the reason, then it’s fine. If there’s another reason, like to restrict or control information, then that’s not always a justified reason.”
There are multiple reasons why student journalists sometimes don’t have the same amount of access as professional journalists from officials, said Tom Rosenstiel, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
”I would hope that [officials] wouldn’t go out of their way to freeze out students, but realistically [they] do make choices. It’s happened for two reasons, one is that officials have decided that the press is something that they want to control rather than something that they want accommodate.”
Rosenstiel said that another reason is because there’s a higher volume of media asking for information and officials are prioritizing media based on the number of people that media can reach and how influential audiences are.
”For better or for worse, younger audiences are less influential,” Rosenstiel said. ”Student journalists are reaching students. Students don’t vote. Students are not decision makers in households, so I think there’s an element of a practical decision. I think it’s sad a little bit because we all owe an obligation to educate the next generation [of journalists].”
However, Rosenstiel said that in the history of journalism, ingenuity usually trumps resources.
”There are ways, if you’re sharp, to imagine different ways to get at stories,” Rosenstiel said. ”But it’s also true that resources usually buy you time, resources buy you experience, resources can get you to places that are otherwise hard to get to. I’ve seen scores of instances where someone climbed below the radar, who’s clever, and can get to stories that the establishment guys would never think of.”
For now, the frustration of limited access has made some student journalists more passionate about getting answers and spreading information about the oil spill.
”Future generations need to have as much access to as much media as possible for the 2010 oil spill,” Goldstein said. ”The Gulf Coast is never going to be the same and it’s going to be years, from an ecological standpoint, until things start restoring themselves. It’s very disheartening, it’s sickening, but at the same time, it’s something that has produced a very strong conviction in me to do this.”
By Kelsey Ryan, SPLC staff writer