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After Gulf Oil Spill, Media Sent Mixed Messages about Safety and Risk of Gulf Seafood

Jun 20, 2013

View Publication  |  Research Brief

In the weeks following the Deepwater Horizon’s explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and subsequent 91-day oil spill in 2010, journalists and sources provided conflicting messages to the public about seafood safety, according to a new study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

This study, published in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health (and published ahead online), shows that newspapers covering the oil spill combined their messages about seafood safety with concerns about economic and environmental effects. As time passed, seafood safety became a news story on its own. The messages conveyed were potentially confusing, sometimes emphasizing that the seafood was safe, other times expressing concern. Most of the messages came from government officials, and these messages were also most likely to emphasize that seafood was safe. In contrast, fishermen, Gulf residents and independent scientist were more likely to emphasize the uncertainty around seafood safety.  Further confusing for the public, the media provided very little constructive advice about how to manage risk associated with eating seafood in light of the oil spill.

In addition, media coverage of seafood safety failed to make an explicit connection that ecological disasters can lead to human health risks by impacting the food supply. The health benefits of eating seafood were uniformly ignored by journalists in their reportage of the oil spill, according to the study, and practical advice about how to manage risks of eating potentially contaminated seafood was not provided.

Lead author Amelia Greiner, PhD, said, “These messages about seafood safety have important implications both for the Gulf’s economy and human health. Connecting the dots between these disasters, their causes, and human health is an important function of media. A public that better understands the links between seemingly separate events—oil extraction and the seafood on their plates— is able to more fully evaluate policy choices and the associated benefits and costs. For journalists, being able to provide actionable information so that consumers know whether to and how to protect themselves would maximize the impact of this reporting.”

Senior author and CLF grant recipient Katherine Clegg Smith, PhD, commented, “The extent and nature of risks posed to the public’s health following a massive disaster such as the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill are not usually immediately apparent.  Public health advocates should be proactive in communicating potential risks as they become known, but even more importantly, what people can do to reduce risk both immediately and in the future. This requires the public health community’s planning and forethought about effective behavioral and policy interventions—and how the options can be best communicated.”

The authors of the study recommend that journalists consult with public health advisers when reporting on environmental disruption, and that when addressing food safety, articles should offer advice about how to manage risk, in addition to reporting all relevant risk information. The coverage also lacked information that would provide context for the risk and safety messages, such as the facts that there are many benefits of seafood consumption—from fetal neural development to benefits for heart and brain function in adults—and that while most of the shrimp, oysters, and crayfish caught in the U.S. come from the Gulf, most of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported from overseas.

The study was conducted by analyzing 315 articles that covered the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, looking specifically for how journalists addressed the issue of seafood safety.

The authors of the study are Amelia L. Greiner, PhD, Lisa Lagasse, MHS, Roni A. Neff, PhD, David C. Love, PhD, Rachel Chase, BS, Natasha Sokol, MPH, and Katherine C. Smith, PhD.

This research is the result of a grant provided to Katherine Clegg Smith, PhD, for a paper titled, “News coverage of the BP Oil Spill: Is seafood contamination part of the story?” from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.