|I'm curious if you understand the warnings about this series of articles in the NY Times...and the warning comes from the NY Times itself. |
If you were better read on the subject you would have known this. At the very least it is unfair to present the article without acknowledging the warning.
I will do it for you. Hat tip to ARTHUR S. BRISBANE
NY Times Rebuked by their own Ombudsman.
Arthur Brisbane, Ombudsman of the NY TIMES on the TIMES natural gas story.
Clashing Views on the Future of Natural Gas
By ARTHUR S. BRISBANE
The Public Editor
New York Times
Published: July 16, 2011
A NEW YORK TIMES article last month, “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush,” warned across two columns at the top of the front page that high expectations for companies drilling shale gas might be headed for a fall. It was the kind of story you wish The Times had written about Enron before it collapsed. Or about Bernard Madoff.
The June 26 article, written by Ian Urbina, was clearly intended to offer that kind of signal and specifically invoked “Enron,” “Ponzi schemes” and “dot-coms” in the early paragraphs.
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. After publication, critics jumped in with both feet.
A UBS investment analyst, William A. Featherston, and colleagues issued a report saying that the article, part of The Times’s continuing “Drilling Down” series on shale gas, was “unduly harsh,” failed to recognize the “enormous” growth of shale gas in recent years and offered no “credible source and context.”
An M.I.T. natural gas study group released a statement taking issue with The Times’s analysis of shale gas economics, well productivity and other matters. Other commentators assailed the sourcing used to support the article’s premise: only two people named in the text, plus a large trove of e-mail from people whose names were redacted by The Times.
A countervailing surge of support for the article, meanwhile, has come from environment-minded readers. And four Democrats in Congress have called on public agencies to examine some of the issues that Mr. Urbina raised in that story and one the next day.
The reaction underscored the stakes involved in shale gas. Hailed as a cleaner replacement for coal, it is extracted using a relatively new, water-intensive drilling technique commonly called fracking. As The Times documented in an earlier installment of “Drilling Down,” there is concern that fracking could wreak environmental havoc in shale basins across the country.
I asked Mr. Urbina and his editors to address complaints about the article, starting with the broad objection that it cast doubt on shale gas without mentioning that it had grown rapidly as an energy source — rising from 2 percent of all natural gas production in 2000 to 23 percent 10 years later, which the M.I.T. group called a “paradigm shift.” The journalists said The Times had already cited the big picture of a gas boom in the “Drilling Down” series opener back in February and had thoroughly covered it elsewhere.
I also asked why The Times didn’t include input from the energy giants, like Exxon Mobil, that have invested billions in natural gas recently. If shale gas is a Ponzi scheme, I wondered, why would the nation’s energy leader jump in?
Mr. Urbina and Adam Bryant, a deputy national editor, said the focus was not on the major companies but on the “independents” that focus on shale gas, because these firms have been the most vocal boosters of shale gas, have benefited most from federal rules changes regarding reserves and are most vulnerable to sharp financial swings. The independents, in industry parlance, are a diverse group that are smaller than major companies like Exxon Mobil and don’t operate major-brand gas stations.
This was lost on many readers, including me. Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that <n>the article “repeatedly confuses the fortunes of various risk-hungry independents with the fortunes of the industry as a whole.”
He told me he hadn’t realized that the report was focused on independents and read it more broadly, adding, “If I didn’t know they were talking about certain independents, then Times readers — who don’t know what an independent is — they aren’t going to know what they are talking about either.”
This confusion stems from the language in the article, which near the top referred to “natural gas companies” and “energy companies.” The term “independent” appeared only once, inside a quoted e-mail.
The article’s sourcing has also been questioned. The Times presented a large array of e-mails — some recent, some three and four years old — from geologists, analysts, energy executives and others who expressed the belief that companies were exaggerating their prospects. The Times excised the names but not the company affiliations from the e-mails. It was from this trove, which became part of a 487-page online document collection for readers to peruse, that the hot-button references to dot-coms, Ponzi schemes and Enron were pulled for the text of the article.
The two named sources in the story, Art Berman, a geologist from Houston, and Deborah Rogers, a farm owner from Fort Worth, say they provided some of these e-mail conversations.
Mr. Berman, who was described appropriately as “one of the most vocal skeptics of shale gas economics,” told me he had traveled the country giving presentations questioning some companies’ claims for shale gas prospects. It’s clear that some of the e-mails in The Times article came from people who had heard him speak.
Ms. Rogers, a former stockbroker, was described as serving on an advisory group of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. What was not mentioned was that her primary business was a small agricultural operation and that she had clashed with Chesapeake Energy, a leading shale gas producer, over its drilling on land next to hers. Mr. Bryant told me it wasn’t necessary to mention this because the issue had not resulted in litigation and Ms. Rogers was clearly presented as an industry critic.
My view is that such a pointed article needed more convincing substantiation, more space for a reasoned explanation of the other side and more clarity about its focus. The Times journalists countered that their reporting consisted of more than three dozen interviews with industry experts, and analysis of S.E.C. filings from two dozen companies and data from more than 9,000 wells. The Times also published several dozen e-mails from industry officials and federal regulators voicing concerns.
“The article challenges conventional wisdom and a powerful industry, so we expected criticism,” said Richard L. Berke, the national editor. “But it is deeply sourced, meticulously reported and measured, and we would not change a word.”
No question, the article challenged conventional thinking, and perhaps some of the shale gas independents will eventually founder. But the article went out on a limb, lacked an in-depth dissenting view in the text and should have made clear that shale gas had boomed.
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