The defining image of the BP oil spill is a suspiciously low resolution video feed from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The much maligned Huffington Post seems to be the only organization willing to focus on the actual devastation taking place 5,000 feet above, along the coastlines where oil has begun washing ashore. It is amazing, in a world where we have the latest information technology available, with dozens of television channels dedicated to news, that the images of dying animals and oil water are doled out so sparingly, as if they are being rationed by an unseen agent who feels that the public can only handle a few pictures of the death and destruction at a time.
I’m actually one of the maligners of the Huffington Post, a publication that brings its viewers a daily hodgepodge of news items, most of them culled from traditional news sources, that have been relabled with new headlines, headlines that are often much more sensational than the actual story turns out to be. In some ways, the website is a reflection of its founder Arianna Huffington, who is herself a larger than life figure with a penchant for dramatic storytelling. So I was surprised this morning to see their front page feature the stark photo of a completely oil covered bird.
It was the kind of photo that should have a “caution, mature audiences only” pop-up screen you have to click through. It was the beginning of a 112 picture odyssey that chronicled in an unrelenting manner the damage from oil covered water in the Gulf. As I clicked through the pictures of oil soaked animals, some dead, some alive, I thought about the editors at the more mainstream publications, editors whose sense of decorum and restraint would have killed any mention of a display of this magnitude, if one of their graphics designers suggested that they run a four page spread of nothing but photos of death, the way they run the two page spreads of those who have died in Iraq from time to time.
I thought about the TV producers who would flatly veto the idea of doing the television equivalent – a fifteen minute slide show, ten seconds per image, with no sound, no narration, no commercials. I thought about all of these things and decided that for today, I wouldn’t complain about the Huffington Post’s shortcomings. Today, I would salute them, for having the courage and the conviction to treat its audience like grown-ups, and give it to us straight, no chaser. Americans are capable of processing more bad news than either British Petroleum, the White House, or our mainstream media seems to believe.
Managing expectations takes a lot of time, energy, and planning, and usually doesn’t work. Disseminating plain, unvarnished facts, if you have them, and “frankly, we don’t know”’s when you don’t, is much, much simpler. Especially since the general public is going to draw it’s own conclusions anyway.
Maybe British Petroleum and the White House will take note.