Chinese newspaper coverage of BP Oil spill

United Kingdom and Chinese newspaper coverage of BP Oil spill

British Petroleum came under severe criticism from around the world when in April 2010 the company lost control of marine drilling operations and caused a major oil spill in Gulf of Mexico. The disaster claimed 11 lives and injured many others. Apart from human loss, the oil spill also resulted in massive loss of precious oil as 205.8 million gallons of crude oil gushed out of the well and no amount of effort worked to cap the well.[Maureen, 2010] The well with active resources of oil was losing 53,000 barrels per day when it was finally closed in July-august 2010. But by then the oil spill had caused major damage to life and property, and it continues to cause problems for sea life in Gulf of Mexico as the latest deaths of dolphins is found connected with BP oil spill.

The world media got actively involved in the story as soon as it came out. Over the period of next few months, it followed every move made by BP to cap the well. However while the UK and Chinese media reported the events as they happened without twisting the facts, there was still some difference that could be seen in the reports from two countries. These differences were more due to cultural and political influences than journalistic quality and expertise.

While China focused on the possible consequences, UK was more interested in looking for the responsible party in the matter. It showed cultural influences because Chinese people do not believe in questioning the authority and hence the style they adopted was non-confrontational. United Kingdom media on the other hand showed sentimental and emotional attachment to one of its biggest organizations by treating it slightly more objectively and staying conservative on the issue of damage caused by the spill.


This paper compares how the media in China and United Kingdom presented the news of BP oil spills to the public. In any news coverage, there are bound to be some cultural influences, which can account for the difference in stories or their interpretation with the audience. BP oil spill 2010 was a national disaster for UK even though it did not happen in the UK but British Petroleum being one of the biggest assets of UK; it was naturally treated as a national problem when BP came under serious attack for its lack of responsible behavior in offshore drilling. For china on the other hand, there was no such sentimental or emotional attachment to British Petroleum and hence it could present a more objective view.


BP oil spill caused major furor in the news world because of varieties of reasons including possible loss of life and property. When media began reporting, some differences could be seen in the use of language, contents and placement of burden issues. United Kingdom media with the exception of the Independent was mostly sympathetic to BP because of this organization being one of the greatest to carry the name of Britain around the world. Chinese media had no such sympathy but it was mostly non-confrontational in style. It focused more on the events, their description and possible consequences. Analysis and interpretation were largely missing from news presented by Chinese media. UK media was more analytical in its approach but looked for someone other than BP to blame. China had its own judgment issues which were influenced by political matters and cultural conditioning. The influences that could most obviously cloud the judgment of Chinese media were grounded in years of rivalry between Chinese and English imperial forces and the fear of world domination by the western powers. China is no doubt a major power in the world now and is in a comfortable position to dominate the world but it cannot shrug off the struggle for domination by western powers which had resulted in many wars and many international conflicts. Hence Chinese media could very easily misconstrue the whole story even though the media often tries to stay objective. It was still not possible for China to completely ignore the west and its power hunger during the coverage of this story.

Apart from those political influences, there are some cultural influences as well. For example China focused more on risk management and consequences of irresponsible behavior while UK newspapers were more concerned with the damage that BP’s reputation suffered due to this disaster and questioned the authorities in the U.S. And Gulf of Mexico instead of BP itself. This shows that there was a clear difference in reporting even though both media tried to stay objective when it came to facts and figures. News articles taken from some key newspapers in both countries showed how different political and cultural influences colored the presentation of stories. China Daily and The Shanghai Daily were more concerned with presentation of events as they occurred and their possible long-term consequences. The newspapers from UK including the Independent, The Guardian and the Mirror focused more on problematic questions of responsibility and placement of final burden.

An example of the difference is given below. This is what China Daily reported about BP oil spill in January 2011: “BP and its partners made a series of cost-cutting decisions that ultimately contributed to the oil spill that ravaged the Gulf of Mexico coast over the summer, the White House oil spill commission said on Wednesday. In its final report on causes of the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, the commission said BP and its collaborators on the doomed Macondo well had lacked a system to ensure their actions were safe.” (China Daily, 2011)

Talking about the same report, the Guardian of UK reported in January 2011: “The White House commission investigating the BP oil spill disaster will call today for a sweeping overhaul of the offshore oil industry, the Guardian has learned. In its final report, due to be delivered this morning, the oil spill commission will criticize the Obama administration for failing to go far enough to reform the offshore oil industry after the 20 April blow-out, sources briefed on the report said.”

The difference is so stark and so clear that it’s downright shocking. While China presented the facts in the reports and focused primarily on BP’s actions, Guardian completely ignored role of BP and instead focused on American administration’s failures. As we mentioned earlier, UK newspapers were more concerned with who should be blamed for this disaster than about risk management and consequences of disasters. It thus looked for every opportunity to release BP from its responsibility to better operation management and instead looked out for a scapegoat that it found in the form of American administration and laid all blame on poor oil industry management in the U.S. that led to the disaster.

Chinese media on the other hand learned the fact, gave description of events and focused on possible consequences of bad choices. It held BP responsible because that is what it learned from the report. Interestingly the Guardian learned something very different from the same report thus showing the glaring difference in interpretation.

However there were still some occasions when the newspapers from both counties didn’t try to look for interpretation of facts but only presented the facts as they were. For example on Dec 16, 2010, the U.S. government filed a lawsuit against BP for damages due to oil spill and newspapers from both countries tried to focus only on the facts of the news. But here again some very essential differences were noticed in description of damage done by the oil spill. We shall study that but let us first read how the newspapers reported the news. People’s Daily from China reported:

“U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday announced the government is suing British oil giant BP and eight others for the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill earlier this year, seeking unlimited damages….The spill caused extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitat in and around the Gulf of Mexico. Local fishing and tourism industries were devastated. Federal, state and local governments as well as businesses spent billions in cleaning up the spill and the recovery effort.”

The Guardian UK carried the same news and had this to say on lawsuit:

“The suit also seeks fines and penalties under the Clean Water Act for the months when oil was spewing into the Gulf, potentially exposing the oil companies to billions in additional costs

The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon on the night of 20 April killed 11 men. Government scientists estimate that 4.9m barrels of oil were released before the well was sealed in September. BP has begun to dispute the size of that estimate.” (The Guardian, 12/16/2010)

The Independent and the Mirror also carried the news in similar fashion. Now for the difference in accounts: while newspapers from both countries did present the facts, it is worth noticing that China focused clearly on the extensive damage caused by the oil spill while Guardian was more conservative in its description and instead focused on 11 people that died because of the spill. The choice of words thus decreased the impact on damage for the readers while Chinese readers would get a more accurate picture of the consequences.

UK was slightly biased towards its coverage of BP oil spill for reasons mentioned above. China was more objective but still presented a clouded picture because of its own prejudices against the west and its age-old desire for world domination through imperialism. We do notice stereotypical depictions where China sees BP as the big bad global corporation, while UK sees it as a victim of America’s unjustified vengeance. “There has been mounting concern at “anti-British” rhetoric coming from the White House, with Mr. Obama angrily denouncing BP as “British Petroleum” – which it has not been known as for 10 years.” (Payne, Mirror, 2010)

Thus it would be correct to say that both countries have been less than completely objective in their reporting of the incident and related actions. Mass media plays a significant role in shaping public opinion. If we go to China today and ask someone about BP oil spill, they are likely to say exactly what they read in the newspapers in China. They would blame the big corporations for such actions and accuse them of irresponsible behavior. However if we go to the UK and ask a local to comment on BP oil spill, they are more likely to attack America for blowing things out of proportion. This is the influence of mass media on shaping opinion. For this reason mass media is considered an indispensible though not a completely reliable source of information when it comes to disasters. (Wilkinson 1999). The information that one can get from media is often clouded by prejudice or sensationalism and hence while it is an indispensible source of information, it is often times unreliable as Singer and Endreny (1993, p. 61) argue, “… media coverage of hazards is biased & #8230;. The media overemphasize dramatic accidents causing multiple fatalities, and underreport illnesses that claim the vast proportion of lives & #8230; new hazards are likely to receive disproportionate emphasis & #8230;”

The inaccuracy and lack of objectivity in reporting can prove disastrous at times as public opinion and attitudes are shaped and influenced. People may become more wary of some entities and hence lose their sense of objectivity while in other cases; they may be desensitized to the magnitude of disaster because of sentimental or emotional attachment to one of the entities responsible for disaster.

“Discursive context” also plays an important role in influencing the way a story is presented. Discursive context refers to the economic, cultural and social issues that a country wants the authorities to address and then they present the news of an event in the same context to shift attention to the desired issue. For example in reporting Hurricane Katrina disaster, the news coverage in the U.S. was presented in the discursive context to stress the importance of military’s role in disaster management. (Tierney et al. 2006)

When it comes primarily to discursive context of environmental hazards like BP oil spoil, it is believed that context is grounded in cultural and political views of a community (Best, 1991). We have already discussed how cultural and political views of UK and China influenced their reporting content and style during the coverage of BP oil spill over a six-month period. It is now important how theoretically we can explain the differences. Discursive context is thus an important concept in this connection. When a community is concerned with certain cultural or political issues, it would use the environmental risks and dangers to drive the attention of authorities to those issues.

During the Katrina event for example, it was found that in order to lessen the impact of the disaster on local community, the newspapers focused more on the severe negative effects of the disaster on nonlocal communities. This was also seen in the BP oil spill where UK newspapers tried to shift the attention from BP executives to American authorities and held the former responsible for the oil spill simply to control public anger against big corporations and one of the most important assets of UK business world.

Journalistic practices in China and UK are different and these differences are very much due to cultural conditioning and social structures. In China, it is not considered appropriate to question authority and expertise and hence BP oil spill was reported as a disaster that happened without questioning the expertise of BP engineers. In the UK, the question of responsibility was the major focus of the media even though it tried to mitigate the irresponsible attitude of BP to reduce public anger and to shape public opinion in favor of BP rather than against it.

The Independent was the only major newspaper that blamed BP in some news article but that too was done indirectly as quoting someone else or expressing the opinions of the white house commission. But it was still far more critical of BP than other newspapers as it recently reported:

“The spill was the greatest ever in the U.S. — 20 times as big as the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 — and initially it was thought it would prove the worst U.S. environmental disaster, imperiling the rich wildlife of the gulf’s semi-tropical waters. By the end of last year about 7,000 dead creatures had been collected, including more than 6,000 birds and 600 sea turtles. But this compares with the figure of perhaps 250,000 seabirds killed as a result of the March 1989 Exxon disaster.” (Independent, March 2011)

The Mirror and the Guardian both supported BP to control the backlash against big corporations that generally arise in the wake of such incidents.

The one interesting thing we noticed during research was that reporting of BP oil spill in Chinese newspapers waned considerably once the wells were capped and U.S. had sued BP for damages. The UK newspapers however continued to report of BP oil spill related activities. Searches revealed hardly any results for reports on BP oil spill in China daily, People’s Daily or Shanghai Daily after Jan 2011. Most news after that was concerned with oil prices with negligible mention of BP oil spill. However there were reports of BP’s activities in other countries and its financial performance. There were few comments on BP oil spill if any and mostly in connection with some other activity of BP’s.

“The energy giant on Monday has been granted four permits to explore for oil and gas in the Ceduna Sub-basin in the Bight Basin off South Australia. The permits were the first in these areas to be issued since the April 2010 blowout at BP’s Macondo well that killed 11 workers and spewed almost five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.” (People’s Daily, Jan 18, 2011)

The journalistic norms that prevail in the media world may often make the reporting biased even though there may not be any emotional or sentimental attachment to the event. For example in this case, even though we know that UK media was trying not to place the entire blame on BP for the oil spill, there is another reason this was done apart from emotional attachment. The UK media understands that if it uses harsh language against big corporations, it is likely to instigate people even more against globalization and the influence of large corporations. This can prove very destructive in some cases because people are generally against oligopolistic powers of large corporations and hence when such a corporation is involved in an environment disaster, the public can become extremely infuriated and may even become destructive to life and property just to show their anger against these corporations.

The media in the UK was aware of this possible backlash and hence adopted a more positive and sympathetic approach towards the reporting of this disaster. Chinese media on the other hand never used harsh language because it doesn’t believe in questioning authority and that is only a cultural influence and not exactly a journalistic norm.


This paper conducted a comparative study to highlight the differences and influences that affected reporting of BP oil spill by Chinese and the UK media. The newspapers we consulted were The Independent, The Guardian and the Mirror from the UK and The people’s Daily, The China Daily and the Shanghai Daily from China. We found that not all newspapers reported the issue in similar manner and there were some prominent differences in the approach adopted by the media from the two countries.

China being a country where authority is never challenged tried not to look for the party to blame and instead focused on description of events and their consequences. On the other hand, UK has no such cultural limitations and showed bias towards BP to control public anger and to absolve BP from shouldering the blame entirely.

We also studied the reporting difference through the lens of discursive context to show why reporting can sometimes be less objective and influenced by cultural and political views. In this case we noticed that discursive context existed in reporting from both countries. It was surprising and rather unfortunate to see that Chinese newspaper did not carry analytical reports on the issue and instead believed in reporting the facts with very little personal opinion or analysis. This could be due to language restriction since we consulted only the English language papers in China.

In the UK, more analytical reports were found which helped us better understand how the media wants to report the event and how it is trying to project a more positive image of BP. UK also appeared very hostile towards American administration especially after the administration sued BP for damages. Obama administration was criticized for its role in the oil spill and the subsequent events and the media tried to find ways to lay blame on American authorities for mismanagement and for attacking BP. This is what an editorial in Guardian had to say about responsibility in BP oil spill: “Two more sobering points to consider: first, the three companies named and shamed in the commission report are three of the biggest in the world, and they were operating off the U.S. coastline. Imagine what smaller firms may be up to in less regulated territories. Second, American regulators clearly do not have enough oversight of deep-water drilling. Officials must be called in not just to judge plans for wells, but to closely supervise how those plans are implemented. Otherwise they are regulators of theory rather than practice. There is a lot more in the Deepwater Horizon saga still to run; on the initial evidence, however, it is not just BP that needs to improve its act, but an entire industry and area of government.” (Guardian Editorial. 2011)

In conclusion, we can say that differences and influences were prominent in reporting from the two sides and while some of them were due to journalistic norms, others were mostly due to cultural and political views.


Wilkinson, I. (1999). News media discourse and the state of public opinion on risk. Risk Management, 1(4), 21 — 31.

“White House oil commission.” Jan 2011.

Singer, E., & Endreny, P.M. (Eds.). (1993). Reporting on risk: How the mass media portray accidents, diseases, disasters, and other hazards. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Shanghai Daily. “U.S. sues BP.” Dec 16, 2010

BP, firms made ‘risky decisions’ before spill. China Daily. 7th Jan 2011

Best, J. (1991). “Road warriors” on “Hair-trigger highways”: Cultural resources and the media’s construction of the 1987 freeway shootings problems. Sociological Inquiry, 61, 325 — 345.

Tierney, K., Bevc, C., & Kuligowski, E. (2006). Metaphors matter: Disaster myths, media frames, and their consequences in Hurricane Katrina. The Annals of the American

Academy of Political and Social Science, 604, 57 — 81.

Hoch, Maureen (2010-08-02). “New Estimate Puts Gulf Oil Leak at 205 Million Gallons.” PBS NewsHour (MacNeil/Lehrer Productions).

BP’s oil exploration plan in South Australia to impact whales: groups 18:33, January 18, 2011. People’s Daily.

Sonnett, J., Morehouse, B.J., Finger, T.D., Garfin, G., & Rattray, N. (2006). Drought and declining reservoirs: Comparing media discourse in Arizona and New Mexico, 2002 — 2004. Global Environmental Change, 16, 95 — 113.

Will Payne. Barack Obama’s “anti-British” attack on BP backfires.

“BP oil spill- deep water, deep trouble” Editorial. The Guardian UK, 7th Jan 2011

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