By S. Robert Lichter, PhD, October 18, 2011
What people often don’t realize is that the media framing of scientific studies incorporates the journalist’s own perspective, whether the journalist realizes it or not. A dramatic example is the recent appearance of dueling studies on fracking that provide a natural experiment on media sensationalism.
Natural gas has long been seen as a relatively clean source of electricity and a means of reducing the contribution fossil fuels make to global warming. Technological developments such as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” have recently expanded our access to deposits of gas from sources like the massive Marcellus Shale formation, which runs through parts of the Northeast and North-central regions of the U.S.
Even as state officials debate the use of this technology on a large scale, however, some environmental groups have raised concerns over the environmental impact of this procedure. As a result, the notion that natural gas represents a “greener” alternative to coal is increasingly being contested in the realms of science, public policy, and the media.
This debate has heightened media interest in any new scientific study that addresses the effects of fracking and the environmental and health consequences of natural gas. Unfortunately, the media have a long history of misunderstanding environmental and health risk assessment, sometimes resorting to sensationalism that overstates potential dangers. This includes giving more attention to studies that find a risk than studies that do not. For example, a George Mason University survey found that 97 percent of toxicologists believe the media can’t distinguish well-done studies from poor ones.
Thus, the recent appearance of two scientific studies that bear directly on fracking provide a kind of natural experiment on media sensationalism. Study One was critical of natural gas development; Study Two was supportive. How much coverage did each get in the mainstream media? The score: Study One – 24 big-city newspaper articles and an NPR appearance; Study Two – two newspaper articles, one of them in a story primarily about Study One.
The first study, by a team of Cornell University researchers led by biologist Robert Howarth, appeared in April 2011 as a letter to the scholarly journal Climatic Change titled, “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations.” The authors concluded that methane emissions from shale produced by the fracking process contributed as much as – or even more than – coal-fired electricity to climate change.
The second study, by a team of environmental engineering researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, was titled “Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus Shale gas.” It appeared in the July-September 2011 issue of Environmental Research Letters, a scholarly journal published by the Institute of Physics in the United Kingdom. The authors concluded that using shale gas instead of coal to generate electricity would significantly reduce greenhouse emissions
The Howarth et al. article (hereafter referred to as the Cornell study, as most news accounts did) was picked up by such mainstream media heavyweights as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, and National Public Radio, along with other big city dailies like Newsday, the New York Daily News, Houston Chronicle, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Overall, a Lexis-Nexis search uncovered 24 newspaper articles dealing with the study, including four op-ed columns and an unsigned editorial, along with an interview with lead author Howarth on NPR’s flagship program “All Things Considered.”
The coverage was heaviest in newspapers based in New York and Pennsylvania, where the proximity of the Marcellus Shale formation has produced ongoing public policy debates over the use of fracking. Most of the articles appeared in April, after media organizations received an advance copy of the Cornell study shortly before it was published. The study continued to receive occasional coverage over the months that followed. It was usually cited as an important piece of evidence in stories on the debate over the environmental effects of fracking.
By contrast, the Carnegie Mellon study made news in only two newspapers. The first was the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which is the local paper for Carnegie Mellon University. The Post-Gazette ran a lengthy article on August 20 headlined, “Marcellus shale gas cleaner than coal, CMU study says.” The only other paper to take notice of the Carnegie Mellon study was the Charleston, West Virginia Gazette. In the Gazette it was mentioned as a study that is quoted by “gas industry supporters,” in a story about the Cornell study headlined, “Natural gas won't reduce global warming, study says.”
A broader sampling of headlines conveys the overall flavor of the coverage:
“Study says gas may be worse than coal for greenhouse effect,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 13
“Fracking pollutes more than burning coal, study finds,” Charleston Gazette, April 13
“Study: Shale gas dirty/ Methane release can top coal as threat to climate, Cornell review warns,” Albany Times-Union, April 24
“'Fracking' for natural gas is polluting ground water, study concludes” Christian Science Monitor, May 9
“A dark cloud on drilling,” Dallas Morning News, May 15
The pivotal article appeared on the front page of the New York Times Business Section on April 12. Under the headline “Poking holes in a green image,” it ran nearly 1500 words and included accompanying photographs.
Written by business reporter Tom Zeller Jr., the article began, “Natural gas, with its reputation as a linchpin in the effort to wean the nation off dirtier fossil fuels and reduce global warming, may not be as clean over all as its proponents say.”
The Times article revolved around the Cornell study and the debate over its implications. Lead author Robert Howarth was mentioned in nine separate paragraphs, including both direct and indirect quotes from him, as well as in comments by both supporters and critics of the study’s findings.
Ironically, the Times also provided a counterpoint in an April 16 opinion piece by columnist Joe Nocera, who criticized the Cornell study as “not exactly iron-clad” and its lead author as not “an unbiased observer.” Nocera’s column was also reprinted by the Bismark (ND) Tribune and the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, VA.
However, Nocera’s was clearly a minority perspective, especially in relation to the news accounts. Dissenting voices were noted in many of the news stories. But these voices usually came from the natural gas industry, producing a “science vs. industry” debate format. As a whole, the coverage bore the stamp of conveying a warning that readers would be foolish to ignore.
For example, the Dallas Morning News wrote, “[A] study by Cornell University showed high levels of gas escaping from the well-bore during the fracking process. While those numbers have been challenged by the gas industry, and by other academics, there is general consensus that a significant amount of natural gas does escape in the process.” Thus, the clear message was usually that the Cornell study needed to be taken seriously as evidence that natural gas might not deserve its “clean” image.
Moreover, the Times’ own story on the Cornell study fit snugly into its “Drilling Down” project, a series of articles that have been appearing since February, which were intended to “examine the risks of natural-gas drilling and efforts to regulate this rapidly growing industry.”
The “Drilling Down” coverage has been led by Times reporter Ian Urbina, whose articles bear headlines such as, “Behind Veneer, Doubt on Future of Natural Gas,” “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush,” “Politics Seen to Limit E.P.A. as It Sets Rules for Natural Gas,” and “Wastewater Recycling No Cure-All in Gas Process.” Other Times reporters have contributed additional pieces, and the Times staff also produced what the paper termed an “interactive graphic” on “Chemicals and Toxic Materials That Come With Hydrofracking.”
Not surprisingly, this series has produced considerable controversy and criticism, to the extent that Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane ran two separate columns on the coverage. In his July 16 column on “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush,” Brisbane concluded 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.”
Despite this rebuke, Urbina and his editor defended the coverage, and there is little evidence that such criticism has slowed down the Times’ latest push for a Pulitzer. After all, journalists who alert the public to dangers in their midst win awards; journalists who debunk overhyped scares do not.
The New York Times is the industry leader for the mainstream media, and it is not surprising that other newspapers would follow its lead in highlighting the presumed dangers of fracking and natural gas development. But other journalists probably needed little encouragement to alert the public against the latest presumed threat to its health and welfare. This was the mindset that gave us unsubstantiated health scares over substances ranging from saccharine to Alar to silicone breast implants.
The immediate takeaway from this story of dueling studies is that readers should be alert to the possibility that the media is emitting its own gas into this debate. The broader point is that the media’s treatment of scientific studies should be treated as a kind of rolling health scare, a structural imbalance based on a selection bias that is unlikely to change anytime soon. So what are news consumers to do in the short run? Just remember, the most deceptive lead in science journalism is, “A new study shows…”