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Tourism Officials Target Media Misinformation

By Staff | Dec 14, 2011

Recent news coverage of red tide impact to beaches of Sanibel, which has included reports of numerous dead fish washing ashore and generating “a stink” to the utter dismay of tourists, has now generated something of a stink with City leaders and County tourism officials, who like so many local residents, dispute some of the claims made by local television reporters.

There is scant local evidence of dead fish washing ashore. According to Sanibel City Manager Judi Zimomra, from searches conducted by beach patrol units, only a total of 13 fish have been found dead on local beaches.

So television news coverage, and the electronic media platforms which allow for the continuance of that coverage, are being said to lean towards “sensationalism” in the perspective of the City Manager. Sanibel Vice Mayor Mick Denham uses a little stronger language, calling such reports “crazy” and “irresponsible.”

“For some young reporters, it doesn’t make a good story unless you say all these fish were found dead on the beach, but that news is inaccurate on Sanibel, and unfortunately, it impacts the tourism industry… it damages the economy,” says Denham.

That isn’t to suggest that an algae bloom, or red tide, hadn’t actually occurred in coastal waters, in fact, such an outbreak was being closely monitored for several weeks. It is even possible some area beaches, in other parts of the county, were impacted. In the waters, quite tragically, fish, endangered sea turtles and marine life died as a consequence. Red tide, and the manmade factors that contribute to its creation remain a serious topic of economic and environmental concern, locally, regionally and throughout the State of Florida. Water quality concerns have garnered widespread news coverage, and will, no doubt, continue with efforts to ensure Florida’s long term economic sustainability.

But that isn’t the issue here. This refers to what City Manager Zimomra calls “a major problem” – when facts of reality are not congruent with news accounts.

On December 9, acting on instruction of Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, the City Manager met with officials of the Tourism Development Council to discuss measures that could be implemented to mitigate damage from faulty reporting.

That discussion wasn’t lost on Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau (VCB).

Pigott depicts a mock conversation between two potential tourists: “One says, ‘Well, I’m planning on going down to the beach in Southwest Florida this weekend.’ The other one says, ‘Oh, I don’t think that’s such a good idea because they’ve got all these dead fish that have washed up because of the red tide, better change your plans.”

Pigott goes on to say, “There are consequences that come from misinformation.”

And yes, the county has experienced this before. One time happened after Hurricane Charlie. Pigott says the VCB invested money and resources in a campaign to let tourists know, despite some news coverage, the county was wide open and ready for business.

A similar situation came after BP’s Gulf oil spill, as City Manager Zimomra notes, “Some people thought all Florida beaches were full of oil, but it never reached here… we saw no impact.”

So, in an effort to reduce what could be very real impacts posed by faulty coverage, tourism officials are considering the creation of what Pigott calls “a rapid response team.” Essentially, this would be a task force that would be called into action to communicate facts when a situation demands. At present, Pigott says the proposal is “kind of in the conceptual stage” but she anticipates further discussion and activities associated for such a strategy.

The idea is supported by Tony Lapi, a member of the Tourism Development Council and incoming Chairman of Visit Florida who is locally recognized as President and Chief Operating Officer of ‘Tween Waters Inn Resort of Captiva Island.

As for his take, Lapi says he maintains constant vigilance as to the condition on local beaches and despite recent red tide reporting, “I could find no evidence of dead fish.”

In fact, it’s a little unclear as to the origin of the news reports. Some of the television coverage included remarks by Dr. Bruce Neill of Sanibel Sea School who additional serves as director for the local chapter of Solutions To Avoid Red Tide. Though he certainly spoke on the severity of red tide and problems that can arise from it, he wasn’t quoted as suggesting dead fish were stinking up the beach on Sanibel. Calls to Dr. Neill have not been returned, nor have calls been returned by Media Coordinator Karen Nelson of Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation.

In one of the television news accounts, a tourist is quoted as lamenting over her discovery of dead starfish, conchs and other shells on the beach, as if to suggest, this was something out of the ordinary in Sanibel.

That tourist may have better served by speaking to any local who could have provided another news flash: starfish, conch and shells can always be found in Sanibel – it is one of the top shelling destinations IN THE WORLD!