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FOI Files: Reaction to ‘fracking’ investigation typifies journalists’ challenges

Journalists and journalism advocates rightly focus a great deal of energy on freedom of information law, defending the rights of the press and public to access governmental information. Attempts to control the press through legal means constitute a daily threat to democracy and must be met with systemic pushback.

Not all controls on information flow are legal, however. Indeed, non-legal controls, in the form of organized disinformation campaigns clothed as righteous indignation by institutions that find themselves in the crosshairs of investigative journalists, have become a growing problem.

It’s a timeworn tactic: an investigative series is quickly followed by a vocal, masterfully orchestrated pushback from the subject.

Throw in a ton of money and the political promise of jobs in a tough economy, and the multiplier effect kicks in.

Charles Davis, University of Missouri

That’s what we’re witnessing in the industry reaction to The New York Times’ series on “fracking” — the use of hydraulic fracturing to drill most natural gas wells. The series has broken new ground and already has spurred major changes in regulations at the state and federal level, yet it’s been the subject of a highly organized assault since the moment it began.

The saga began after the newspaper ran a front-page story by Ian Urbina in June featuring leaked internal emails that highlighted doubts among federal regulators and oil/gas industry officials, and that questioned the economics of extracting shale gas from wells. Urbina quoted an unnamed analyst comparing the bonanza over shale gas to “giant Ponzi schemes.”

The oil and gas industry’s response was to throw every sort of allegation imaginable at the Times reporters. Name-calling, character assassination, charges of ideologically based reporting and worse have been hurled.

Wading through the charges and allegations against Urbina and his colleagues, it’s easy to start to believe that what’s up is down, in a sense. This is masterful spin: generate enough fog, convince people it’s smoke, and eventually they’ll believe that it is fire.

I’m not here to render a verdict on the coverage but to focus on the now-ritual outrage machine that gears up following every significant investigative series regardless of topic or findings.

The industry’s reaction to the series fell into three categorical themes, repeated again and again. First, critics contend that the series is thinly researched. This is a fascinating argument given the massive piles of annotated primary source documents supporting the major tenets of the stories.

Second, its critics contend that the Times had its facts wrong. But dislike of facts does not equal factual error.

Finally, and perhaps most creatively, critics have assailed the newspaper for redacting some of the documents it published. Oh, sure, documents were redacted — but only to protect leakers, and only then after federal agencies refused to turn them over through FOI requests.

Howl loud enough, long enough, though, and you can gin up sufficient controversy that someone on high will feel the need to respond to said critics, thus lending them an aura of legitimacy they so richly do not deserve.

That’s a shame, because any legitimate controversies created by the series should form the basis of discussion and debate. Instead, factual controversies tend to be drowned out by wave after wave of distractions such as the age-old cry of bias.

In this instance, the Times ombudsman, Arthur Brisbane, a fine newspaper editor with a rich pedigree in the news business, really had little choice but to wade into the fray after sufficient "controversy" had been generated.

Brisbane penned a pair of columns, the first a critique of the framing of one of the stories, the second criticizing the use of anonymous sources in the series. This was pretty typical ombuds stuff, agree with it or not, and it’s pretty easy to assail anonymity, at least until one realizes that this series is a sterling example of a case when anonymity is defensible — when a compelling story of national import is not going to be told otherwise.

The rest of the Times news staff must have felt that way, because for the first time since they initiated the public editor position, the newsroom responded to the ombuds’s column — twice.

This whole episode is illustrative of the very real challenges facing investigative journalism today. Confronted by deep-pocketed industry spin machines with nothing but time and money on their hands, every story that investigates aggregated corporate power can count on similar attacks.

It’s nothing new, but it’s more regimented, more visceral and more time-consuming than ever before. Journalists must respond to such attacks with a restatement of facts, with new explanations of previous stories, in interviews with journalists covering the “con­troversy.” It siphons precious resources away from the enterprise, every day.

Charles N. Davis is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Jour­nalism.
He is co-author, with David Cuillier, of “The Art of Access.
Jona­thon Peters is a doctoral student at the school.

This column appears in the Fall 2011 edition of The IRE Journal (Volume 34, Number 4)

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