As Exxon censors local media, citizen journalists document Arkansas oil spill. Can the pros be doing more?

exxon oil spill in arkansas wet land photo
CC BY 2.0 Tar Sands Blockade

In the two weeks since Exxon's Pegasus pipeline ruptured on March 29th in Mayflower, Arkansas, spilling some 300,000 gallons of oil, I have tried to watch every news report posted on the websites of the three main local television news outlets, THV, KARK and KATV. Having consumed all this media, I've come to realize that there is a stark contrast in what visual evidence has been presented by the local media compared to what has been documented by residents and citizen journalists. Here's why this matters.

What would your impression of the severity of the Exxon Mayflower oil spill be if the video of the oil flowing through the neighborhood simply did not exist? Or how confined to the neighborhood would you think the damage was if we didn't have this aerial footage? How would you gauge Exxon's progress cleaning this spill if you had only seen these photos and local news video of freshly graded dirt, new grass and power-washed streets and we didn't have this video of the oil-soaked wetlands? And would we still believe the claims from Exxon and local officials that Lake Conway is not contaminated if we didn't have this video taken Wednesday night showing water from the cove being pumped into the main body of the lake?

I believe that absent these four videos, especially the first three, our understand of how much damage Exxon Mobil has caused to Arkansas would be greatly limited. This is important and troubling, because none of these videos came from the local media and even now, two weeks after the spill, Exxon is still limiting access to the press and intimidating media to try and control what the public can learn about this disaster.

Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones had a good summary of the way Exxon has intimidated the media, going so far as to threaten reporters with arrest for daring to seek answers on behalf of the public. Yesterday, we learned Exxon has threatened legal action against local TV outlets to censor an ad critical of the company. We also learned that Arkansas law enforcement officers have been paid by Exxon to work as "private security" during their off-duty hours, while remaining in their uniform, creating a serious conflict of interest that blurs the lines between which parties they serve, the people of Arkansas or the most profitable corporation in the world.

It is a legal and ethical mess that only benefits Exxon Mobil.

One of those journalists that was threatened with arrest is Michael Hibblen, a reporter for public radio station, KUAR. Following his run in with the police (or member of Exxon Mobil private security, we don't know), he was interviewed by Stephen Malagodi, who gets Hibblen to explain what a day in the life of a reporter trying to cover the Exxon oil spill is like.

You can listen to the interview via SoundCloud below:

Here is the transcript.
This is a long, but informative and important interview, because it not only sheds light on what challenges KUAR, Hibblen and the rest of the local media faces, but I believe it also reveals some of the faults or limitations in their thinking regarding what is acceptable and expected behavior to take in reporting facts about this oil spill.

In this exchange Malogodi asks Hibblen about the difference in the types of photos he has been able to take at the site of the oil spill and the images citizen journalists volunteering for Tar Sands Blockade got by sneaking past Exxon security to photograph and film from the wetland. The links I've added will take you to the Facebook posts Malagodi references. I've bolded a few key points to note.

Stephen Malagodi: But, today, and we’re speaking on Sunday afternoon, the 7th, you posted on your Facebook timeline a series of pictures that I assume you took today. You introduced the photos this way, and I quote: “Reporters were given their first chance since shortly after the oil pipeline ruptured to view the cleanup in Mayflower, Arkansas. KUAR’s Michael Hibblen was among them and took these photos during the tour.”

And then we look at your photos, there are 19 photos, and it’s workers and it’s lawns and there’s some workers there in yellow suits and things are kind of green and brown, and it doesn’t look too awful bad. At almost the same time on my computer screen, these two timeline entries were practically adjacent, almost right on top of one another, this entry from Tar Sands Blockade. These entries were about 15 minutes apart. Tar Sands Blockade introduces their pictures this way, and I quote: “This is what Exxon tried to keep the media from seeing. They filled this wetland with tar sands bitumen. Just a few hundred feet from the Bell Slough Wildlife Management Area. Watch [videos of our discovery.] Read more about it here.” And you follow the link to their Flickr account, and there are these horrible pictures from the Bell Slough Wildlife Area where they’ve evidently moved, pumped or power washed the oil sands into this slough, and the pictures are horrible, of, you know, some dead muskrats and a worker carrying some other kind of dead animal, and oil everywhere.

Michael Hibblen: Mmhmm.

Stephen Malagodi: So, my question is, doesn’t that put you as a professional journalist in a really bad position? Through no fault of your own you’ve been prevented from accessing, from reporting this story in a way that would be accepted by most folks, as you are representative of a legitimate news organization and you have no axe to grind. If it was just between your reporting and Tar Sands Blockade, who have an obvious interest in this, I would go with your reporting. But since I know, and it’s kind of like clear from the beginning that you’ve been prevented by this company from doing the reporting that you think should have been done, doesn’t that put you as a professional journalist in a really bad place, because of the social media? You wind up with this situation where in your reports, you call it a tour, right?, and the Tar Sands Blockade people said, “We snuck into this area and took these pictures.” So I mean, as a professional journalist, it must be very difficult.

Michael Hibblen: [Long pause] Yes. It is, it is difficult, and unfortunately a key part of it too is just the fact that we’re a small news organization and you have to unfortunately your wait, you know, in this case, we had to wait nine days and we never snuck into any areas, anything of that sort, reaching out through official channels to try and get information. But it did take nine days, and that’s a key factor in what I’m posting as. But, yes, unfortunately for reporters, you are limited, but the great thing about social media is you do have outside organizations that in a way can get information out just as effectively if not more so to people by, in this case, sneaking into areas where things are happening. And it is one of the limitations of mainstream media is news organizations continually are getting smaller. In our case, as an NPR station, we have a small staff of people and haven’t been able to spend as much time as we’d like out there at the site, and in terms of actually getting in to see the area, at least here around the homes in the area where the spill actually, where this came out of the ground, you’re waiting for official channels for that. It helped when we saw overhead shots, because then, as said, and that was Wednesday, and some groups – I don’t know if the one you mentioned did, but you’ve had other people who have gone overhead, but it’s a little disappointing when Exxon Mobil complains and then the No Fly Zone is issued. You have limited resources, unfortunately, in most news organizations and you do the best you can with what you’re able to do. But it is good that we can see, and that’s part of what kept, as this story progressed, we see photos coming out from outside sources and that’s when you realize that many things aren’t exactly what’s being channeled to you through official channels. And that’s how the media has continued, at least mainstream media, to know that there is more to this and we shouldn’t just stop reporting on it, but, again, yeah, I wasn’t able to get into other places. These are photos and this is pretty much the representation that was made to me and other news organizations here nine days after the fact.

There's a lot to unpack here.

After it is pointed out how badly he and the rest of the mainstream media has been scooped by citizen journalists, Hibblen says that "the great thing about social media is you do have outside organizations that in a way can get information out just as effectively."

What? No!

What makes social media great is not that other people can do journalism and you get to use it. That's the wrong lesson to take from this!

The great thing about social media is that anyone can use it!

I agree with Hibblen that it is good there are other people and organizations doing journalism, because as I note above, without the amateur produced video we wouldn't have any important visual evidence of this disaster.

I love that anyone can take and share videos on YouTube or photos on Flickr or that people can rally around a topic on Facebook and answer questions or share media to spread information. For example, it was great that the HAWK Center shared photos they were taking of oiled wildlife, which alerted the media to report on this. For citizens, this is what is great about social media.

But for the professional media, censored by Exxon and barred from covering the story, social media should not be seen as a crutch on which to depend, hoping that because you aren't getting any significant photos or videos, some amateur volunteer will and you'll just get to use their reporting later on after it is posted to YouTube or Flickr. That's the wrong attitude. Because sometimes the amateur video won't be there.

In general, I honestly have sympathy for Hibblen here and my quoting him on this should not be taken as suggesting he is the go-to face of the mainstream media to blame for poor reporting on this spill. He is simply the only Arkansas journalist I know that has spoken candidly about about the challenges reporting this story. To his credit, he also told Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones about Exxon using local police to threaten journalists with arrest, so he has contributed to exposing the intimidation Exxon is using to cover up their mess.

That said, I think his comments raise some important points about journalism and the role of "old" and "new" media and how they are using social media tools to aid their reporting.

When I wrote about the work being done by these same Tar Sands Blockade activists/reporters Wednesday night during the thunderstorm that produced devastating tornadoes across Arkansas, I noted that their reporting only stopped that evening because their iPhone ran out of battery and the backup battery they had purchased with donations from their viewers had been soaked in the rain. They traveled to the site of the contaminated wetlands in the back of a truck, during a storm that produced tornados.

Imagine what they must think of Hibblen's complaint about limited resources.

When he speaks of limited resources, Hibblen is also likely talking about time and headcount and not having enough people to devote to this story alone. KUAR does a lot of other things and this isn't the only story in the state or nation that they have to report on. I get that. The Tar Sands Blockade folks are working on this sun up to sundown and beyond.

But the television networks have more people and more money and video is their bread and butter, so where are they?

This Tar Sands Blockade video from the wetland has been picked up by The Colbert Report, The Rachel Maddow Show and who knows how many other media outlets. I am sure there are producers, videographers and reporters for KARK, KATV and THV sitting in their offices in Little Rock wishing they had gotten this scoop. The attention and recognition would be great and the pageviews would be great for the advertising budget.

So why didn't they get it?

As Glen Hooks with the Arkansas Sierra Club pointed out in an interview with Hibblen, the local media has been far too willing to follow orders from Exxon. Hooks tells the story of the private meeting Exxon help soon after the oil spill in which they barred the media from attending. Hooks, knowing he had a right as a citizen of Arkansas to attend a meeting held in a public high school with public officials in attendance, challenged the Exxon security that was blocking his entrance and eventually made it inside, while the local media remained outside.

In this example and throughout the entire two weeks this has been happening, they seem to have accepted the limitations imposed on them by Exxon and perhaps felt comfortable knowing that if all of their competition was similarly limited in getting on-site coverage.

Now, I should clarify I am a long, long way from the wetlands of Mayflower. I have depended heavily on the reporting the local media has been able to do even with their limited access, which is invaluable. There's certainly more to this story than just what can be reported at the spill site. I'm also very familiar and concerned about the problems media outlets face funding investigative journalism as advertising and subscription revenue falls. There are no doubt challenges.

But it bothers me to think of how much less Arkansans, the nation and readers around the world would know about this oil spill pipeline disaster had citizen journalists Drew Barnes, Adam Randall and the Tar Sands Blockade activists had not gathered video when they did.

The local media and the public owes them all a huge thanks for the work they've done to expose how significant this mess Exxon has caused truly is.

I hope their refusal to wait for Exxon's permission before going wherever needed to record what is happening will inspire the local media to do the same. We need this reporting, desperately, to not only pressure Exxon to do the right thing in cleaning this spill and paying damages to Arkansas residents, but also to make visible the dangers posed by tar sands pipelines and our continued dependence on dirty fossil fuels.

As Exxon censors local media, citizen journalists document Arkansas oil spill. Can the pros be doing more?
The local media and the public owes them all a huge thanks to citizen journalists for the work they've done to expose how significant this mess Exxon has caused truly is.

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