Oil spill coverage shifting into new phase

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NEW YORK (AP) - The cap that has stopped oil from gushing uncontrollably into the Gulf of Mexico inevitably means that news cameras will begin drifting away from the disaster scene _ a relief to some, a fear to others.

The story has dominated broadcast evening newscasts, with CBS‘ Katie Couric, ABC’s Diane Sawyer and NBC’s Brian Williams making nine separate trips to the stricken scene since Williams’ first visit on May 3. Couric and Sawyer were both in the Gulf region last week.

Live video of cascading oil was perfect for cable news, where producers could flip a switch and call it up anytime, making every spill story seem timely and urgent. Its absence is good news, but many who live and work in the Gulf are worried about what will happen when news crews leave, said CNN’s Anderson Cooper, in his eighth week anchoring his nightly CNN newscast from the region.

“People here feel that often they get forgotten,” Cooper said. “I know that’s a huge concern right now.”

News executives say they’re very aware the story won’t be over with the pictures changing.

“On any given day in the next couple of weeks, they will hopefully stop the flow of oil in the Gulf, and this turns into a story about a massive environmental cleanup _ the likes of which we haven’t seen,” said NBC News President Steve Capus. “I still think that’s worthy of coverage.”

That’s true, said Paul Friedman, CBS News senior vice president. But correspondents Mark Strassmann and Kelly Cobiella, who have spent most of their time on the story for the past couple of months, will now alternate time there, he said.

“I think it’s an occasional return to the story to see how the cleanup is going and what the effect is on the people who are down there,” Friedman said. “But that’s occasional, that’s not every day.”

It’s about time, news consultant Andrew Tyndall said. He angered many in the TV news business by posting an online commentary last week saying about the Gulf coverage: “Enough already!”

Damaging the marine ecosystem and wrecking businesses in the tourism and fishing industries is terrible, Tyndall said. But he called it an insult to the memory of Hurricane Katrina victims and to New Orleans that television news has essentially given equivalent attention to the disasters.

There comes a point where the local effects of the spill become a local story, no more or less important than the impact of the economy on people elsewhere in the country, said Tyndall, whose TMI Research firm closely monitors the content of newscasts.

The newscasts have spent too much time on what are essentially local angles and not enough on macro questions such as what it all means for the future of U.S. energy policy, he said.

Several news executives said Tyndall was off base. “I respectfully disagree with his conclusion that it’s time to stop,” NBC’s Capus said.

Billions of dollars in cleanup spending, the involvement of presidents, prime ministers and one of the world’s biggest companies in BP is “not what I call local,” said Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC’s “World News.”

“That is a singular American industry down there with the shrimpers and the fishermen,” Banner said. “If for nothing else, they deserve the attention because a way of life they have counted on and tried to protect for generations is now in question. That doesn’t happen every day in America. For that reason, the story should be told.”

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