“Third major oil spill in a week: Shell pipeline breaks in Texas” trumpeted the headline that several friends posted to my Facebook page. My first reaction was outrage, but my second was skepticism. Who is this source called RT? Why haven’t I heard about a major oil spill from any of the myriad other news organizations that I follow? And which of the figures in the short report was accurate — 700 barrels, 50 barrels, 60 barrels or “no evidence”?
Moreover, the RT report had a horrifying photo showing an oil-slicked body of water and booms holding it back, labeled “AFP Photo / Joe Raedle.” If Agence France Presse had the story, then certainly the major U.S. media would have published it. But … nothing.
I began by looking at RT, and found this self-description:
With its first channel launched in December 2005, the RT network now consists of three global news channels broadcasting in English, Spanish and Arabic, RT America broadcasting from a Washington, DC studio and a documentary channel RTDoc. RT has 22 bureaus in 19 countries and territories, with a presence in Washington, New York, London, Berlin, Delhi, Cairo, Baghdad and other key cities, and employs over 1000 journalists around the globe.
I also looked at their front page for recent news stories, and found an assortment of stories, but not the depth or breadth of reporting that would indicate 22 bureaus or 1000 journalists.
Next, I Googled oil spill and Texas and Shell, but I turned up nothing that didn’t use the RT report as the source.
Then I Googled the image and discovered it on Picturexone.com <http://www.picturexone.com/page/89>, with this identifying tag:
PORT FOURCHON, LA – JULY 7: Oil coats plants and oil absorbent material as high winds and waves caused the cancellation of cleanup operations on the beach on July 7, 2010 in Port Fourchon, Louisiana. Foul weather continues to hamper oil cleanup operations on parts of the gulf coast. Workers are hoping to get back to work soon to help contain the Deepwater Horizon spill which has sent millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf since the April 20 explosion on the drilling platform.
I understand using stock photos to illustrate articles — but not without revealing that they ARE stock photos, and are not photos of the event described in the article. The photo is also found on Zimbio <http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/tqflzSlwzNK/Massive+Oil+Spill+Damage+Gulf+Environment/XaXTBHsgEEd> with this description:
Massive Oil Spill’s Damage To Gulf Environment And Economy Increases
Oil coats plants and oil absorbent material as high winds and waves caused the cancellation of cleanup operations on the beach on July 7, 2010 in Port Fourchon, Louisiana. Foul weather continues to hamper oil cleanup operations on parts of the gulf coast. Workers are hoping to get back to work soon to help contain the Deepwater Horizon spill which has sent millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf since the April 20 explosion on the drilling platform.
(July 6, 20102010-07-06 16:00:00 – Source: Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America)
Note that neither of the two instances of the photo’s appearance sources it to AFP, though at least it appears that the identification of Joe Raedle as the photographer is correct.
My conclusion: I don’t trust RT as a news source. And I doubt that there was a serious oil spill in Texas last week.
I have criticized oil pipelines before, and I remain convinced that the Keystone XL pipeline is a terrible idea and that we need to minimize oil use rather than maximizing environmentally damaging drilling — but I also believe that we need to base our opposition on facts, not fictions, and that real journalism suffers when phony journalism flourishes.