So That’s What ‘Public Interest’ Journalism Means

Having studied up a little about the Marcellus Shale, hydraulic fracturing and natural gas regulation, we went back and read the original story in the Albany Times Union, page one, banner headline, written by Abrahm Lustgarten of the ProPublica non-profit, public interest, journalism venture: “Upstate New York’s looming natural gas nightmare.”

A couple of things jumped out.

First — Number of energy executives cited in the story: 0

No apparent effort at a balancing point of view, assurances or even platitudes from an industry that’s being condemned for threatening a “natural gas nightmare.”

Second — Clear identification of the critics: Not good.

In 2004 Theo Colborn, a scientist who specializes in the health effects of low-dose chemical exposure, began to investigate drilling fluids. She was spurred by the story of a Colorado resident who suspected her cancer was tied to water contamination from a nearby gas well.

Colborn collected shipping manifests that trucks must carry when they haul hazardous materials for oil and gas servicing companies. When an accident occurred, she took water and soil samples and tested them for contaminants.

But who is she?  The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University describes her:

Theo Colburn is senior scientist and director of the Wildlife and Contaminants project at the World Wildlife Fund. She started her career as a zoologist late in life, after she and her husband retired from a successful pharmacy business to raise sheep. She became alarmed by pollution in the Gunnison River near their ranch in Colorado. Her involvement in Western water issues led her to seek a master’s degree in ecology and a Ph.D. in zoology. Her pioneering work on the effects of synthetic chemicals on the endocrine system has led some to compare her to Rachel Carson, who warned the world about the dangers of DDT.

And, the recipient of the Rachel Carson Award! But the ProPublica story in the Times Union identifies this activist and prominent member of a major, international environmentalist group only as a scientist who specializes in the health effects of low-dose chemical exposure. The impression that’s left is of a disinterested scientist, not an anti-industry activist.

Third, adherance to basic journalistic accuracy and practices: Bad.  We offer this sample from a longer version of the ProPublica story — originally posted on the paper’s website but now only at ProPublica:

Hart, the Pennsylvania treatment plant executive, said the last time he talked with a DEC representative, the caller, whose name he couldn’t remember, displayed a general lack of understanding of water issues and didn’t have a clear grasp of waste water disposal alternatives.

“The caller, whose name he couldn’t remember.” As far as credible sourcing goes, that’s not. It’s laughable.

Here’s ProPublica’s credo: “ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that will produce investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work will focus exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force.’ We will do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

The “moral force” of any story is undermined by lousy, one-sided journalism.

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