The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

The New York Times on The New York Times

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted July 19, 2011

Arthur Brisbane, The New York Times' public editor, is critical of the newspaper's recent coverage of the economic boom associated with natural gas development in Pennsylvania, Texas and other states. You can read his piece here.

Equally interesting is reaction to Brisbane's comments from the journalists who wrote and edited the story in question - basically telling Brisbane to take a hike. "We would not change a word," Richard L. Berke, the newspaper's national editor, is quoted as saying. No question, an ombudsman often travels a lonely road.

Others should decide for themselves whether The Times practiced good journalism. Brisbane has his doubts and lays out his case, starting with the article's use of loaded words like "Enron," "Ponzi schemes" and "dot-coms" to convey alarm about natural gas ventures. Brisbane:

"Raising the prospect of a fall, though, is a journalistic gamble. Adding to the risk, the story painted its subject with an overly broad brush and didn't include dissenting views from experts who aren't entrenched on one side or another of the subject."

Brisbane notes that an MIT natural gas study group, which recently published a full report on the future of gas development, questioned The Times' story. Others taking issue included the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the Oklahoma Geological Survey's director, the former head of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, Rice University Professor Kenneth B. Medlock III and more.

Brisbane's other main points:

  • The Times' article cast doubt on shale gas without mentioning its rapid rise from 2 percent of all natural gas production in 2000 to 23 percent a decade later - pretty important context for a story that asserts the gas industry is on shaky economic footing.
  • Lack of input from major investors in shale gas, like Exxon Mobil, which Brisbane doubted would be involved in a Ponzi scheme. The article's author and editors say the piece focused on independent producers instead of major companies, but the public editor said that wasn't clear from the story.
  • Sourcing questions. The article was based on a number of anonymous e-mails. Named sources included a Houston geologist who travels the country questioning shale gas economics and a Fort Worth farm owner, depicted in the article as an advisor to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas - but with no mention of the fact she has had an ongoing dispute with a major gas producer over drilling on land next to hers.

Again, others can decide for themselves, but the response of the article's authors and editors is illuminating. More from Berke: "The article challenges conventional wisdom and a powerful industry, so we expected criticism."

Yes, but more than industry voices reacted negatively to The Times' journalism here. While the press' role certainly includes challenging conventional wisdom, in this case The Times wrongly challenged reality.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.