Why do we call it an 'oil spill'?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Adapted from Joel Achenbach's daily blog.

I got an e-mail from a reader who apparently (and I'm sort of reading between the lines here) is displeased with our coverage of the Deepwater Horizon disaster:

"That you and/or your editors continue to use the word "spill" when referring to the Gulf disaster is proof that you all are either complete idiots, absolutely [evil], or both. You disgust me!"

Well, brushing past the invective, certainly he has a point: It's not a spill. This is a conversation we've had for two months now. It's an uncapped well, still gushing. Bob Dudley of BP met with a dozen or so reporters in Washington last month and made precisely this point: It's not a spill. He said there's no way that BP can repair its public image so long as it's uncapped and the scale of disaster is marked by "infinite uncertainty."

I don't always use the term "oil spill" in my stories, but I often do. It has become the journalistic convention for this disaster.

In the old days I'd say it was driven by the demands of one-column headline writing. Short words like "spill" (I count that as 3.5 points) are much easier to squeeze into a headline than, say, "disaster" (seven points).

But I don't think it's the print headlines that shape the journalistic conventions these days. We're more likely to react to the dictates of Search Engine Optimization. The most common search term is "oil spill."

So you could say it's the Google spiders who have decided that this is an "oil spill." But of course, it's real people who type in the search words. So it's an "oil spill" because that's what people are calling it.

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