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Annual Public Lectures Series > David Ropeik

Scientists and Journalists:
Getting the Point Across
June 13-17, 2011

Communication Lessons From the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
David Ropeik, Author and Risk Communication Consultant, moderator
Summary of comments from June 15

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA and the EPA were each pieces of a larger command structure that needed to communicate across federal, state and other organizational lines. Following the chaos of working within so many jurisdictions, establishing who was in charge, assessing the damage, and deciding how information should best be shared and communicated to the public, it is now possible to review the effectiveness of these approaches to crisis communication and understand the major challenges experienced during this oil spill.

Justin Kenney, director of communication and external affairs for NOAA, and Paul Anastas, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Research and Development and the science advisor to the Agency, convened to discuss these topics in Metcalf's public lecture series, moderated by David Ropeik of the Harvard School of Public Health.

Kenney discussed the role of NOAA during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and provided an inside look at the job of communications director, including the common setbacks associated with conveying science to a skeptical public during a crisis. He spoke on the difficulty of releasing vetted scientific data that keeps pace with the immediacy of news reports, and answered an array of questions relating to disseminating information on national versus local levels, and through which forums.

Anastas noted the EPA's goal to provide instant updates of reliable and accurate data for each day of the spill and information accessible to multiple audience types with the same communiqués. Once scientists have reliable data, they should answer questions, "so that no vacuums exist, no fears are harbored because of a lack of information," said Anastas.

The panel discussion presented competing perspectives on institutional dissemination of crisis information. Scientists working with federal agencies on the Deepwater Horizon spill were sometimes critical of media for reporting prematurely on data that had not been rigorously tested. Journalists were critical of these agencies for refusing to share information with them, and leaving them to fill this "vacuum" how best they were able.

What are better methods for sharing basic information? Should traditional media be entrenched with scientists or kept close to ongoing work, or should these government agencies communicate directly to their constituents? Is the government set up to deliver messages in caring and locally appropriate ways necessary during a crisis? Kenney, Anastas and Ropeik weighed in on these and related questions.

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June 20, 2011