The U.S.’s Worst Oil Spill in History: Examining the Facts

Dominant narratives overpower the media world we live in today. News sources, articles, books, etc. often portray these dominant narratives, which causes bias when there is no other side of the same story being told. These dominant narratives then influence people’s opinions, and the truth often becomes lost. However, this does not have to be the case. Counter-narratives can be presented for audiences to dig deeper into a topic. Individuals can explore the different resources about one topic and think critically to formulate their own opinions on an issue. In order to do this, readers can ask questions such as what factors are influencing the author’s perspective and what information is being left out. By looking critically at various sources about one topic and asking these questions, individuals can formulate opinions and then discuss these topics further with family, friends, or colleagues to gain an even deeper knowledge.

Questioning dominant narratives is not something individuals only have to do with current media. History can also be explored in this way, especially in a classroom setting. Teachers can present various sources about one specific event in history and provide guiding questions to help students think critically about the material they are reading. By having a variety of sources, students can formulate their own beliefs about the historical event. The teacher can then have the students debate the topic in order for them to discuss the material and hear the ideas of their peers. This discussion format may even cause students to change their opinions, which is okay!

One occurrence which students could investigate would be the BP Oil Spill (also known as the Deep Water Horizons Oil Spill). This incident, which occurred in 2010, consisted of an underwater oil pipe off of the coast of Louisiana leaking oil. Over the course of approximately three months, millions of barrels of oil contaminated the Gulf of Mexico. Due to the large area of contamination and the massive amounts of oil lost, this event has been cited as the U.S.’s worst oil spill in history.

Throughout the occurrence of the oil spill, BP executives gave several statements to news sources regarding the reasons for the spill as well as the effects of the spill. There was also a news article published by The Guardian which details the vast amounts of “finger pointing” done between involved companies as to whose fault it was that this event occurred. These examples of media are portraying the large companies’ perspectives on the incident, especially in trying to preserve their image to the general public to not lose their consumer population.

On the contrary, several news sources were providing stories. One article in particular describes how several individuals became sick from the spread of the oil as well as detailed the financial and marine effects of the disaster, which BP was lying about. There have also been several videos posted on YouTube regarding the effects of the oil spill. As a result of this event, BP took a severe hit to their brand. Several people have altered BP’s logo to portray the oil spill incidence. One such modification of the logo portrays half of the logo as being a dark brown or black color rather than the typical green, showing how BP pollutes the ocean with their oil. These examples of media are detailing the actual effects of the oil spill on marine life, the ecosystem, tourism, and finances of the large companies who are responsible. These sources do not attempt to cover up any details as they have no image of their own to preserve.

In response to the oil spill, there was also a movie created to detail the events of the night the oil rig exploded (the trailer for the movie can be viewed here). There was an article review written by the Washington Post about the movie which stated that the movie does a good job of portraying life on the rig, but it simplifies who was to blame for the disaster. Similar to the movie which attempted to portray facts and eliminate bias, various articles have been written which simply presented facts about the disaster. These articles eliminated the personal stories and the he said/she said about what had happened. One article in particular also detailed the numerous cleanup efforts attempted. These examples of media work to provide a neutral standpoint, presenting facts of the night the rig experienced issues, the oil spill, and the cleanup efforts. The authors do not try to protect the companies involved nor do they use personal stories to elicit any feelings of empathy for those affected by the incident, which helps them take a neutral standpoint.

While BP eventually admitted to Congress the vast effects of their mistake, they could not undo the damage they had done. They had to pay a hefty fine for the damage to the marine ecosystem as well as lost several millions of dollars on cleanup efforts. As a result of the various sides of the story which were told, students can investigate the occurrence and its effects through the multiple sources.

When presenting a variety of these different types of sources to students, teachers should include a set of questions to help their students dive head on into the material. The list of questions below can be used:

· What is the author’s perspective on the incident?

· Who is the author’s intended audience?

· What type of reaction is the author attempting to elicit among readers/viewers?

· Is there anything important which the author left out?

· Is there anything the author misrepresented to portray a different picture for the audience?

The above list of questions are suggestions for the types of inquiries teachers should help students engage with when presented with any media source. These are not the only questions to be used. By providing a structure of questions for students, they will become better at knowing how to critically engage with material and compare various sources. This is a skill necessary throughout one’s lifetime.

After students have explored various sources and answered questions similar to those presented above, they can begin to examine how issues like these affect their own lives. This influence on one’s own life can be anything from loved ones who live along the coast who were affected to increased gas prices which one’s family could not afford. Students can also begin to explore ideas such as “Do we owe any help to the people affected by the disaster or is it not our problem because we live far away/do not know anyone affected?” By asking deeper questions like this one, students can begin to explore their role in the world and what their responsibilities are to other people. By thinking about one’s role in his/her surrounding world, he/she will be engaging in authentic intellectual work as he/she begins to put classroom knowledge and skills into practice in other aspects of his/her life.

Engaging elementary students in a topic like the BP Oil Spill should be relatively easy as students have the chance to discuss how animals were affected. Debating this topic will help teach students how to view the dominant narrative (BP’s story) versus non-dominant, contrasting narratives (oceanographers’ viewpoints). Students will be able to view several viewpoints on this one event and decide what they believe truly happened and how big of an effect the spill had. By practicing this skill of analyzing several stories about one event, students will become better at critically engaging with material to become active participants in the messages being sent to them rather than passively accepting their surrounding world’s messages.

While all of the sources are hyperlinked throughout the blog, they are also listed here for any teachers to use when approaching this topic with their students.

BP Dominant Narratives



Non-Dominant Narratives




Neutral Narratives




Works Cited

Achenbach, Joel. “’Deepwater Horizon’ movie gets the facts mostly right, but simplifies the blame.” The Washington Post. WP Company LLC, 29 September 2016, Accessed 20 October 2017.

“BP chief Tony Hayward’s statement in full.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 17 June 2010, Accessed 20 October 2017.

Bryant, Ben. “Deepwater Horizon and the Gulf oil spill — the key questions answered.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 20 April 2011, Accessed 20 October 2017.

“Deepwater Horizon (2016) Official Movie Trailer — ‘Heroes.’” Youtube, uploaded by Lionsgate Movies, 26 May 2016,

Grace, Janelle. “Examining the Aesthetic Response to the BP Oil Spill.” Hyperallergic. Hyperallergic Media Inc, 25 June 2010. Accessed 20 October 2017.

Hertsgaard, Mark. “The worst part about BP’s oil spill cover-up: It worked.” Grist. 22 April 2013, Accessed 20 October 2017.

“Revisit the BP oil spill, 5 years later.” Youtube, uploaded by CNN, 14 April 2015,

The Ocean Portal Team. “Gulf Oil Spill.” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 2016, Accessed 20 October 2017.

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