Despite the enormous economic and environmental benefits of developing natural gas from shale, the process used to produce those resources has generated quite a bit of controversy lately. Loud protests, fiery public forums, and even a choreographed arrest or two have become common events.
It's unsurprising that strong disagreements exist; it tends to come with the territory anytime you're trying to develop energy. But what is most concerning is that those charged with objectively reporting the facts on issues related to shale appear, in some cases, to be less interested in objectively calling balls and strikes than in grabbing a bat, jumping into the box, and taking a couple swings.
In just the past year, the New York Times was rebuked two separate times by its own public editor for misleading coverage as part of its "Drilling Down" series. Sloppy reporting is one thing. But what if I told you there was a journalist covering the shale debate for a major media company who was currently suing the very industry on which she's reporting?
Meet Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe of the Denton Record-Chronicle, a paper owned by the same company that owns the Dallas Morning News. Heinkel-Wolfe leads the paper's Barnett Shale beat, and has over time developed a reputation as something as a "pass-through" for activists in the area interested in securing easy coverage.
Her shale-related stories are generally pretty easy to spot, with titles like "Practice Lays Waste to Land," "Lowering the Boom" and "Into Hostile Territory." The text is often even worse. This past summer, she went so far as to blame the incidence of breast cancer in North Texas on Barnett shale development, notwithstanding that the counties with the most Barnett-related activity have all recorded breast cancer rates well below the national average. Independent public health professionals have similarly confirmed the safety of development.
But actually, the week before her breast cancer story hit, a separate item in the paper included in its 13th paragraph an incredible note: Heinkel-Wolfe, it said, is "a plaintiff in a separate lawsuit against the [natural gas] companies" relating to the siting of a processing station. Heinkel-Wolfe opposed the project so strongly that she even submitted comments to state regulators in 2010, demanding that her grievances be considered "with the same weight that you give to industry."
And you know what? There's not a single thing wrong with filing a lawsuit or submitting a public comment to a state agency -- unless, that is, you happen to be a reporter covering the very same companies you're suing and commenting about.
The Society of Professional Journalists maintains a code of ethics that urges reporters to "avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived." And because strict definitions are elusive, the SPJ asks journalists to "remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility." Can anyone even pretend to suggest that Heinkel-Wolfe is meeting these standards?
Shale gas and oil development has been dubbed a game-changer for our country, and it is increasingly one for the world as well. Some 600,000 people are employed today because of the industry, a number that will rise to more than a million in coming decades. And the development of American energy will mean less reliance on foreign imports.
Irrespective of your opinion of the costs and benefits of developing those resources, we can all agree -- or should -- that facts should shape the future of those activities, not conflicts of interest. It's frightening to think how many others across the country could be similarly blurring those lines.
Eshelman is executive vice president of Energy In Depth.