It's not an oil leak news story without pictures of a suffering animal.
The moment I heard about the Deepwater Horizon oil leak, I knew I'd soon see depressing photos of animals. That's how it goes with oil spills and oil leaks. Animals are threatened, and some die, and this is both news but also a source of dramatic imagery to accompany coverage of the accident.
And so it goes with coverage of the leak in the Gulf of Mexico. It's estimated that more than 200,000 gallons of oil are leaking each day into the Gulf, a region rich with life. The impact has been illustrated with photos of dead sea turtles that have washed up along the Gulf Coast. Images from Ship Island, Mississippi reveal that dead birds, sharks, and other fish have been found there, too. CBS News created a banner to package its coverage of the spill — "Disaster in the Gulf" — that features an oil-soaked bird's head against the backdrop of a plume of smoke coming off the water.
But pictures don't always tell the whole story. And in this case, they're not actually even telling quite the right story. Scientists haven't confirmed that the turtle deaths are related to the oil spill, which you wouldn't know if you're a reader of the Los Angeles Times, which reported the story with the headline "Gulf oil spill: 23 dead sea turtles wash ashore in Mississippi." As for the animals found on Ship Island, Getty Images' official captions for the photos includes the warning, "It is unknown if the bird [and shark and fish] died due to the oil spill." But that didn't stop the Sacramento Bee from including them in its Gulf Oil Spill photo gallery. And that oily bird in the CBS banner? It was cut out of an Associated Press file photo from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.
I hesitate to point these things out. I worry it suggests I'm skeptical about the environmental impact of more than 200,000 gallons of oil leaking each day into the Gulf of Mexico, when I'm anything but. I point them out, in fact, not in spite of my concern for the environment, but because of it.
I feel conflicted about images of dead and suffering animals in oil spill coverage. I, and I imagine most people, have an emotional response to them — who doesn't at the sight of suffering? An accident like this can cause pain, the images say. Maybe that's something to consider as we debate the merits of oil drilling and transport, and maybe it isn't. I'm not going to weigh in on that, but I do think it's at least a consequence to acknowledge, whatever one's opinion on the matter. If you want to drill, know that the potential repercussions include, as the New York Times recently put it, "whales so drugged and disoriented by noxious petroleum fumes that they can drown, and tiny translucent organisms whose bodies are literally burned from the inside out as the sun heats the fuel they have ingested." The images remind us of this. They're powerful because they make that connection, one that's grounded entirely in emotion.
And yet something about them feels...off. In focusing on the suffering of an individual animal, it's easy to overlook the less emotional and impossible-to-photograph impact of an oil spill on an entire ecosystem, which includes more than animals. An ecosystem comprises animals, yes, but also plants and chemical processes and physical processes. That's not to say coverage of the oil leak fails to consider the environment as a system of relationships. The New York Times is exploring this very well, looking into oil's impact up and down the Gulf's food chain, and how oil could kill off marsh grasses and thus reduce wetlands already disappearing at a rate of a football field an hour — marshes that are home to a bevy of species but also offer humans protection from the full impact of hurricanes.
It's hard to capture systems, eco- or otherwise, in a single image. Some outlets are trying. The Times has a compelling infographic explaining the possible effects of the leak on underwater life at various depths. The American Bird Conservancy has mapped the spill, the boons currently used to contain it, and the habitats used by migratory birds that it threatens. But the punch of these images is informational, not emotional.
That information is important — more so than the emotion. But I worry the latter often overwhelms the former. The image of the oil-soaked bird isn't powerful because it suggests the threat to the species, and the food chain, and the entire ecosystem. It's powerful because it's a bird, and it's covered in oil, and you know it doesn't want to be, and that it may be in pain, and that it is, at the very least, terrified. A dirty or dead bird — or turtle or shark or fish — is proof that an oil spill is bad news; if they weren't, the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee and CBS News and others wouldn't be working so hard to shoehorn them into their coverage.
Would an oil spill that lacked these oily animals be any less dangerous? No, but to know that you'd have to motivate your brain to read science news and dissect the infographics and maps. This is hard work. Pictures are easier. You see a dead turtle, and your heart thinks it understands just how bad this situation is. And if you don't, well, how bad can things be? • 7 May 2010
Jesse Smith is managing editor of The Smart Set.