Framing the “Greatest Environmental Disaster in Our History”: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill as a Social Event

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was described by President Obama as the “greatest environmental disaster ... in our history”. It is shown here that despite such assertions, the responses of three actors – President Obama, the New York Times, and the

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  Framing the “Greatest Environmental Disaster in Our History”: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill as a SocialEvent Paper for presentation at theAnnual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association,March 2011. Chicago, United States.Mat Hope –  School of Sociology, Politics, and International Studies (SPAIS), University of Bristol, UK. Please note this is a draft copy. Please contact the author for permission to reference. Abstract The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was described by President Obama as the “greatestenvironmental disaster ... in our history”. It is shown here that despite such assertions, theresponses of three actors – President Obama, the New York Times, and the BP CEOs – wereframed predominantly in social, not natural, terms. In this paper, a frame analysis isconducted of these three actors’ responses to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. It isshown that all the actors predominantly framed the event in social terms; that Tony Haywardtook the role of ‘technical expert’ rather than a crisis-response leader, creating frame-conflict;and that President Obama was himself primarily responsible for perpetuating a narrative of executive responsibility, building pressure on his already strained administration. This paper shows how the ‘politics of signification’ affects the politics of the environment, and howsocial narratives of the environment can become translated into ecological modernisation policy-talk with potentially long-term influences on the future of US environmental policy. Key words: Framing, Deepwater Horizon, environmental policy, energy policy  Introduction On the 20 th April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, anchored off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, had an explosion. The explosion ruptured the oil well that it was currently digging,starting what was to become in President Obama’s own words, “the worst environmentaldisaster America has ever faced” (Obama 2010a). Early estimates of the extent of the spillwere optimistic; starting at ‘no oil leak at all’ before sharply increasing to a still-manageable1000 barrels a day (Nichols 2010). The estimates, though, kept rising. By June the 15th it wasestimated that anything in the region of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels were leaking into the fragileecosystem every 24 hours (Achenbach and Fahrenthold 2010). When the leak was finally plugged in mid-September, it is estimated that nearly 5 million barrels of oil had seeped intothe Gulf (New York Times 2010a).This study looks at how four key actors framed their responses to the crisis: President Obama,the New York Times, and the BP CEO’s - Tony Hayward and Bob Dudley. In particular, the paper analyses whether there were any differences in how each actor framed their responses,and how these framings changed and developed over time. It is argued that each of the actorsframed the event within the broader discourse of ecological modernisation which sees theenvironment as something to be tamed and harnessed, rather than of value in itself (Murphy2000). Furthermore, each actor framed the event in such a way as to reinforce the idea thatthe environment is beholden to society, not the other way around. It is this understanding onwhich the foundations of US environmental policy have been and will continue to beconstructed, with potentially serious effects for the health of both society and the ecosystemswithin which it operates.This paper highlights three findings from the analysis. Firstly, it is found that all four actorsframe the event predominantly in ‘social’ terms. It is shown how a communicative consensusemerged within a social primary framework as positive feedback loops perpetuated andreinforced the event as one predominantly of society rather than the environment itself,raising questions as to what President Obama – and subsequent reporting – understood thethis ‘great environmental disaster’ to be.Secondly, it is shown how a framing conflict occurred at the metaframing level with TonyHayward preferring a ‘technical’ framing, and President Obama and the New York Times preferring a ‘political’ framing. This framing conflict was indicative of and perpetuated theintense political conflict that was played out during the event. It is notable that when BobDudley took over as BP CEO – and also as BP’s chief communicator – this framing conflictdiminished as he aligned his framing of the event more closely to that of President Obamaand the New York Times.Finally, it is shown how the pressure that President Obama and his administrationexperienced in responding to the spill was communicated through a perpetuation of anexecutive responsibility sub-framing. More than this, though it is shown that PresidentObama himself was largely responsible for this perpetuation within the context of the2  complex communications and institutional discourses that emerged during the event. As such,the pressure that President Obama and his executive were under can be seen as ‘self-induced’as much as it was inevitable.The paper concludes with further consideration of the ability of frames to affect policy andwhat, in this case, the present framings of this ‘environmental disaster’ mean for the future of US environmental and energy policy. Here it is elaborated how the ‘politics of signification’has translated into ecological modernisation policy-talk fuelled by framing the ‘environment’as a social object. Prior to this, though, the design of the study is outlined and frame analysisas a method is discussed in more detail. The dataset The timeframe of the study runs between the 23 rd April 2010 and the 25 th October 2010. Thedataset is composed of all the New York Times editorials on the spill from the time-period(22), all of President Obama’s official speeches and statements on the spill during the time- period (12), the ‘executive response’ videos recorded by Tony Hayward for the BP ‘Gulf of Mexico Response’ website (3), and early official statements by Bob Dudley (5).The totalnumber of sources in the dataset is 42. The dataset is weighted towards President Obama andthe New York Times due to the availability of sources. However, the depth of the Haywardand Dudley sources goes some way to counter this (they are much longer than either the NewYork Times editorial and President Obama’s speeches and statements), and this weightinghas also been acknowledged and accounted for where possible in the analysis. These sourceswere selected as they provide an ‘official’ view of each actor in situations where they are predominantly in control of the communications.The analysis measures two aspects of the actors’ framings; their ‘loudness’ and their ‘strength’ (see Chong and Druckman 2007). ‘Loudness’ can be measured quantitatively interms of frequency; that is, how often each frame is used. While this data can be informativeof where frame conflict seems to occur (for example if one actor uses one framing mostoften, and the other actors use a different framing most often) alone it does not providerequisite detail. Measuring the ‘strength’ of the frames can provide this detail. Measuring the‘strength’ requires a closer qualitative analysis of the framings. It requires a detailed analysisof the semantics and syntax of the lexical items to try and account for the nuances of thelanguage used when the framings are applied. Combined, this mixed-methods approach can provide a sophisticated account of the framing of a particular issue.In this study, there were a total of 962 framings of 102 sub-frames under 15 metaframeswithin the 3 primary frameworks (see Appendix A). From this data, there are three resultswhich stand-out corresponding with the three levels of the framing process: firstly, that theDeepwater Horizon oil spill was framed predominantly within a social primary framework byall the actors; secondly, that a frame-conflict occurred because Tony Hayward privileged a‘technical’ metaframe rather than the ‘politics’ metaframe favoured by President Obama andthe New York Times; and, thirdly, that President Obama ‘self-induced’ pressure on his3  administration during the event through his privileging of an ‘executive responsibility’ sub-frame. Method: frame analysis by micro-discourse analysis There remain very many ways of actually ‘doing’ frame analysis. This is partly due to the useof the word ‘frame’ itself. Sometimes it is loaded with deep theoretical meaning 1 , while atother times it is meant as a broad term to describe everyday communicative behaviour . 2 Evenwhen the meaning of the word ‘frame’ is clear, though, there remains a lack of rigour in themeans by which these ‘frames’ are recorded (or at least in the reporting of such methods).This problem was confronted by Johnston (1995) who attempted to formulate a systematicmethodology for conducting frame analyses that could be applied across social research, thus providing a methodological back-bone which future frame analyses could attach to. While heostensibly failed to unify the application of frame analyses (it remains as disparate as ever),the methodology that he formulated – micro discourse-analysis – remains useful. It should benoted here that Johnston’s micro-discourse analysis doesn’t introduce any concepts that areradically unfamiliar to those with positivist leanings, or the frame analyses that precededJohnston’s work. Nor does it outline a set of conceptual tools with which to analyse the textsat hand (as these are well provided by the framing literature itself).Johnston’s main point of departure was that “several persistent problems in frame analysisremain: how to do it systematically, for example, and how to verify the content andrelationships between the concepts within the frames identified” (1995: 217). Ultimately,frame analysis “takes a specific example of written text or bounded speech and seeks toexplain why the words, sentences, and concepts are put together in the way they are”(Johnston 1995: 219). Johnston wanted frame analysis to return towards its linguistic rootsand to take interest in the supposedly obvious and taken-for-granted aspects of social and political speech and texts. In order to do this with any validity, there needs to be a systematic process by which the texts can be deconstructed (and then reconstructed). Micro-discourseanalysis provides for this through five key principles:1.Taking the text as a holistic construct: Analysing the text as a whole, rather thanfocusing on isolated elements.2.Accounting for the ‘speech situation’: Identifying where the text is located, and whateffect that may have on the communication.3.Conducting ‘role analysis’: Identifying and accounting for what role the speaker is playing in the particular situation.4.Accounting for the ‘pragmatic intent’: Ascertaining what the intended purpose of thetext is (from the perspective of the speaker).5.Analysing ‘discursive cues’: Accounting for the paralinguistic elements of thecommunication (such as facial expressions, pitch, physical gestures etc…).(Johnston 1995: 221-228) 1 As in Goffman (1974), Minsky (1975) and Fillmore (1975) among others 2 As in Nisbet and Mooney (2007) 4  These five principles provide a solid structure for systematic analysis which avoids some of the pitfalls that can beset frame analyses. Due to the nature of this project’s sources (i.e. thatmany are paper-records), a commitment to the fifth principle - the paralinguistic features -has to be surrendered. However, the other four principles provide good methodologicalscaffolding around which to construct the study.The study was conducted using so-called Computer-Assisted Qualitative Analysis Software(CAQDAS). In this case, QSR’s NVivo 8 was used to conduct the frame analysis. Theanalysis was conducted in five stages:Stage 1: Collect the sourcesStage 2: Organise sources by categoryStage 3: Allocate attributes to each sourceStage 4: Inductively code framingsStage 5: Check and revise codingThis method requires quantitative analysis of qualitative data which can be used to identifythe key framing conflicts, before returning to the respective qualitative source-data to further explore these conflicts in detail. As such, the quantitative element only makes sense as anaccompaniment to qualitative analysis and explanation. Therefore, while the quantitativecomparisons that form much of this paper are informative their figures can only be taken asindicative – rather than ‘proof’ - of a particular, more qualitative phenomenon. ‘Framing’ ‘Framing’ is the process by which meaning is constructed, negotiated, and perpetuated. Inorder to understand the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as a communicative event, we mustunderstand its framing. There is a large variety of models and labels for the various types of framing that occur in political discourse. One common theme, however, is assertions thatthere are different levels of framing. As such, what emerge are multi-tiered or hierarchicalmodels in which framings are operationalised at different levels of generality and specificity.Drawing from a range of influences, but in particular the models of Goffman (1974), Minsky(1975), Fillmore (1985), and later Rein and Schön (1994) and Fischer (2003), the model of the framing process employed here has three levels; ‘primary frameworks’, ‘metaframes’,and ‘sub-frames’. A ‘frame’ contains framings at each of these levels. It can be compared toan eye where the whole contains a pupil, iris, and sclera (see fig. 1).5
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