The long-running environmental crisis stemming from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico gave media outlets an opportunity to use the web as a significant platform for coverage, frequently in ways that enhanced or augmented print and broadcast reports.

In connection with this study, PEJ examined the websites associated with 14 major national news outlets to evaluate how those organizations used their sites to bolster ongoing coverage of the spill. [2] The analysis focused on interactive graphics and multimedia tools on those websites. While by no means an exhaustive look at the web tools developed, it did offer a sampling of how they were deployed as an accessory to coverage.

Among key findings: 

  • The most common element in these web tools was the timeline used to highlight key events and often to catalog a news site’s coverage of those events. In many cases, these features were used to drive news consumers to spill-related stories on the website. And often, they could not be fully understood without the context of broader reporting.
  • The most successful online tools included clickable icons linking to more information on a particular topic, audio narration that explained complicated technical and scientific concepts and animations that showed various processes, including the spread of oil in the Gulf. One example was the New York Times video animation detailing failures in the rig’s blowout preventer. 
  • Some website features provided static graphics or graphics that were simply too intricate to be understood by someone without a working knowledge of engineering or science. The Los Angeles Times often posted graphics that appeared exactly as in the newspaper. The Wall Street Journal offered diagrams that weren’t interactive and packed with so much detail that they were difficult to comprehend. 
  • stood out among the websites examined for the sheer volume of interactive features it produced and their level of sophistication. The most informative was a multifaceted feature breaking down the spill by the numbers, effectively putting the story of the spill into historical, economic and environmental contexts.

These web tools traced the causes of the spill and provided a window into the disaster as it was unfolding. The best among them allowed users to explore various aspects of the crisis on their own and offered assessments of the spill’s impact on the Gulf Coast that otherwise would have proved a daunting task for traditional print or broadcast outlets. The function of these features fell into several different categories.

Monitoring and tracking the leak

Many of the interactive tools examined here monitored the gusher in the Gulf. Two of them that generated substantial pickup were counters featured on the PBS NewsHour website. The NewsHour’s Oil Leak Widget tallied how many gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf based on competing low-to-high estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from outside experts and from BP. Figures were regularly updated as sources released new estimates. The high estimate topped out at 328 million gallons, as of August 11, 2010.

The widget—embeddable by others, at no charge—appeared frequently on blogs and local news websites. Accompanying the leak counter, NewsHour provided video of the leaking well via the free streaming website UStream by using video from remote cameras operated by BP.

Going beyond the numbers, most news organizations launched animated illustrations tracking the appearance of oil in the Gulf and coastal marshes. The websites of USA Today, the New York Times, and CNN provided oil spill “trackers” that visualized where oil in the water had been observed. The animated maps showed the movement of oil slicks from the leak over time, from their origination at the former site of the rig to their spread that eventually pushed sludge onto Gulf beaches.

Assessing the impact

USA Today maintained a map tracking beach closures, swimming advisories and recreational fishing bans affecting those states. In a related map, the New York Times depicted the oil spill’s effect on wildlife in the Gulf region, showing the number and location of dead or injured animals since the oil spill began.

CNN’s Depths of the disaster feature displayed diagrams showing different methods to stop or contain oil shooting from the well, graphics depicting BP’s cost of responding to the oil disaster versus its profits, figures on the number of BP claims paid and the potential economic tourism loss to the Gulf Coast over the next three years. Most graphics included rollover boxes for users to get detailed information on icons in diagrams, numbers in underlying graphs and the chronology of major events.

In another graphic, Oil disaster by the numbers, the size of the BP spill was compared to the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident and the 1991 Persian Gulf oil spill, which was estimated to be slightly larger than the BP spill as of August 2. A separate interactive map detailed the 10 worst domestic oil spills—the 2010 Gulf oil spill being No. 1— in the U.S. since 1975, detailing their causes and how much oil was spilled.

Anatomy of the disaster

News organizations also used graphics and animation to explain technical failures on the oil rig that led to the explosion and BP’s attempts to stanch the flow oil from the ruptured well.  Several examples were highly detailed and required a higher level of comprehension than the average news article.

The Wall Street Journal offered a comprehensive series of static illustrations detailing different methods to contain and cap the spill, including the “static kill” and siphons.

In a video animation, the New York Times examined the possible causes of the initial leak, focusing on a critical failure in part of the rig’s blowout preventer, the blind shear ram, which is intended to cut off the oil flow in emergencies. The Times’ video also included narration by reporter James Glanz explaining the more technical aspects of the blowout preventer’s critical components.

Another example of interactive graphics aiding in the explanation was MSNBC’s physics of oil spills feature. It illustrated and detailed how raw oil spreads, evaporates, disperses and eventually biodegrades over time. The feature, though unrelated to an August 4 government report stating that as much as three-quarters of the oil released from the BP had been dispersed, revealed how crude concentrations can dissipate in the ocean.

Citizen journalism and crowd sourcing

Among the outlets we examined, CNN and the web-only investigative news website ProPublica were the only ones who tapped their audiences to provide firsthand accounts of the Gulf oil spill.

CNN extended the use of iReports—news videos and photos created by users of and viewers of its cable channels—to collect first-person accounts from residents along the Gulf Coast. As of August 5, the website provided more than 240 videos on a page devoted to oil spill iReports.

Many of the reports offered the personal experiences of residents affected by the disaster. iReporter Geoff Livingston profiled a sixth-generation Louisiana fisherman known only as Kerry grappling with the reality that he may have to give up his profession. “My father always told me this business was a dying one,” Kerry told Livingston. “But no one imagined it would happen like this.”

ProPublica also used its website to connect with readers. Along with reporter Sasha Chavkin’s Unofficial Guide to BP Oil Spill Claims, ProPublica asked readers who had filed claims and received letters from BP stating that they had provided insufficient documentation to contact Chavkin, who was pursuing a story on this issue.  In this instance, ProPublica was using the interactivity of the web to enhance its more traditional reporting.

1.This included the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Associated Press, ABC News, CBS News, MSNBC, PBS NewsHour, Fox News, CNN, the Huffington Post and ProPublica.  PEJ researchers examined the interactive features between July 30 and August 4, 2010.