The recent rash of stories about (a) a 22-mile long underwater plume of dispersed oil, or (b) a newly discovered microbe that had eaten the plume entirely raises questions not only about the research but also about the way it has been covered. Can both be true simultaneously?
Three sources that may help put the stories in perspective are the Diane Rehm show, the MIT Science Journalism Tracker, and Science News.
Today's Diane Rehm show directly examines the apparent contradiction between the two studies -- a contradiction not directly addressed by much of the journalism in recent days. She interviews both principal investigators and discusses the issues with a diverse panel. The show is still on as the Glob posts, but can be streamed and downloaded from the Rehm site.
MIT's Boyce Rensberger at the Science Tracker reviews a wide range of the stories on both studies. He mentions a fact that few news media mentioned -- that the oil-eating-microbes-made-it-vanish study was funded by BP. And he asks whether funding sources shouldn't ALWAYS be part of a science story.
Still more perspective is added by Janet Raloff's Aug. 25 piece in Science News. Raloff reminds us that ships are still gathering data about this dynamic ocean process and cautions against a "rush to judgment." The story is evidence that critical thinking and actual subject knowledge still have important roles to play in news media coverage of science.
"Neither the White House nor critics of an Obama administration report is crying uncle in a dispute over a government report suggesting that three-fourths of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico is 'gone.' After being blasted by lawmakers, scientists and environmentalists in recent weeks, the administration is standing behind its claims that all but 26 percent of the oil is accounted for, despite widespread criticism that such a claim paints too rosy a picture of the situation in the Gulf." Katie Howell reports for Greenwire August 23, 2010.
"White House claims that the worst of the BP oil spill was over were undermined [Thursday] when a senior government scientist said three-quarters of the oil was still in the Gulf environment and a research study detected a 22-mile plume of oil in the ocean depths.
Bill Lehr, a senior scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) departed from an official report from two weeks ago which suggested the majority of the oil had been captured or broken down.
'I would say most of that is still in the environment,' Lehr, the lead author of the report, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee."
"Two new scientific reports on Tuesday raised fresh fears about the environmental fallout from the world's worst offshore oil spill and questioned government assurances that most of the oil from the ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico was already gone.
"With the Deepwater Horizon well capped, federal officials have turned their energies toward holding BP accountable for the environmental damage caused by hundreds of millions of gallons of oil loosed into the Gulf.
"WASHINGTON -- The dispersants used to break up the BP PLC oil spill came under new scrutiny Wednesday in the U.S. Senate, where a panel warned that the U.S. government lacks critical information about whether the chemicals threaten sea life in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The EPA says that the brew of oil and dispersants still swirling in the Gulf of Mexico can be highly to moderately toxic to marine organisms at certain concentrations determined in a lab setting. The agency did not say whether those acute toxic levels are present in the open waters of the Gulf.
"U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson today urged Congress to take up legislation strengthening her agency's authority over oil dispersants in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico gusher, calling for more testing and disclosure of the chemical ingredients in the controversial spill-fighting products.
Jackson said EPA is evaluating a draft dispersant bill that Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) plans to introduce next week, a measure expected to focus on ingredient reporting and monitoring of the chemicals' long-term effects on human and marine health."