I was recently in Gulf Shores, Alabama, wondering how the oil spill clean-up was getting along. It was getting along great. At least on this beach.
I'd never visited Alabama beaches. The sand was luminously pale, almost as white as the sugar it is compared to. And clean. The water was clear except for swirling sand. Along the beach birds lined up, studying the water. When a wave receded, a gull or a willet would often sprint forward and snatch something.
I waded in to the mild water. When waves receded, small shells became visible. Nice.
What's this? Shells were tipping on end and sinking into the sand. Tiny living clams were reburying themselves. I'd never seen such active, speedy shellfish.
Just below the surface, the sand was thick with little clams, less than an inch long. When a wave uncovered them they quickly dug back down.
Hey, cool. It turns out that you can dig your foot into the soft sand and edge it over so it's beneath the clams. When the next wave ebbs, drawing away sand covering the clams, they burrow down and tickle your feet. (“What's this? Weird rock? Feels soft – can I dig through it? How about here?”)
I thought I saw a bigger clam. I tapped it to see if it was empty. It was a crab, quick to pinch.
Nearby was a large temporary yard full of equipment that had been used to clean the beach, earth-moving machines, bins, portable toilets. (It's easier to clean a beach than a marsh.)
In a nearby oysterhouse* I remarked to a waiter, whom I'll call Luke, on how great the beaches looked. He said the oil had mostly come ashore in the form of tar balls. Unfortunately people had gotten the idea that the whole area was drenched in sheets of oil – and tourism had plummeted. I thought the place looked busy, but he said it was perhaps 40% of normal for the season. “It's the press,” he said. “They keep showing those same pictures over and over.”
(*Oyster stew, followed by fried oyster salad. Marvelous.)
True. Who wants to see a picture of normality when they can see a picture of news? If there's an oil spill, you want to see a picture of oil. If a man bites a dog, you'd like to see a picture of that, not a picture of a man and dog on good terms. Those who supply pictures and narratives want to provide the ones that people are interested in. (It's also easier to photograph a beach than a marsh.)
If there's an earthquake, you want to see a picture of earthquake damage. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a dramatic photograph of a collapsed house in San Francisco's Marina district was shown around the world. It wasn't false. That house did collapse, a piece of the Bay Bridge did give way, an Oakland freeway overpass fell and crushed people to death in their cars. It was also true that most houses, most roads, most bridges were unharmed.
I told Luke that most San Franciscans got desperate calls from far-away friends and family who were afraid we were trapped in collapsed houses. “We saw the pictures! Are you okay?”
In good newsgathering, dramatic pictures come with perspective. We need to be told what percentage of houses are damaged and whether in fact there was more damage in less-famous cities seventy miles away – or what percentage of beaches have oil. (People also need to pay attention to that information.)
It's more difficult with breaking news – when the facts aren't all in yet, when the facts are changing. When no one knows yet how many houses have structural damage (and they're unwilling to commit themselves “for insurance reasons”). When a beach that's clean might have tar again in the morning.
Luke asked what I did for a living. Bravely, I told him I was with the press. He didn't fling anything. He beamed. “I'm jealous of you!” he said.
Earlier, I stood calf-deep in the lovely Gulf waters, and called a friend. She was in California, but she grew up in Alabama, and spent childhood vacations with her family at Gulf Shores. Earlier television broadcasts had about broken her heart. It gladdened her to hear that the sand was clean. The water was clear. The clams were zippy.