Are BP and the Coast Guard attempting to keep journalists from learning the worst about the Gulf oil spill? It certainly seemed that way yesterday when a vessel of Coast Guard officials and BP contractors threatened to arrest a crew from CBS News if they didn't turn back from their investigation of an oil-covered beach in South Pass, Louisiana. So why did this happen? The same heavy oil-filled shoreline has already been observed by Governor Bobby Jindal, after all.
"The incident isn't reflective of policy for media access to the spill site or spill mitigation efforts," Lieutenant Commander Chris O'Neill, the Chief of Media Relations for the U.S. Coast Guard, tells FastCompany.com. "We've reiterated our policy to the field." O'Neill says that the Coast Guard has worked aggressively to embed media, but "every once in a while someone misinterprets guidance."
O'Neill speculates that the misinterpretation may stem from an incident earlier in the week where a media crew in the South Pass area was asked to depart either because they were interfering with response operations or there were safety concerns. Fair enough, but we still have to wonder if the BP contractors deliberately violated the Coast Guard's policies—especially because a contractor onboard the boat told the CBS crew, "These are BP's rules. These are not our rules." And while O'Neill tells us that this was an isolated incident, there have been other unconfirmed reports of reporters being blocked from spill sites. Safety concerns aside, limiting just who can report this or blocking access to the story could have a chilling effect on solving this problem.
We've submitted a request to the Coast Guard to speak to the members on board the vessel that turned away the CBS crew. We've asked for as prompt a response as possible, but we were also told the Coast Guard crew in question was still out in the field. Stay tuned.