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New York Times Admonished -- Again -- for Anti-Shale Gas Bias

The New York Times (NYT), chastised last year for, among other things, describing the shale gas industry as a "Ponzi" scheme whose future would match that of Enron Corp., continues to focus exclusively on the negative risks of gas drilling and has hyped the research of questionable sources, according to a Forbes magazine contributor.

Author John Entine, a George Mason University senior fellow, covers science and public policy at the Center for Risk & Health Communication and Statistical Assessment Service. His motto, he said, is "follow the facts, not the ideology." The NYT's coverage of the "natural gas revolution" and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) debate has displayed "little of the contextualized reporting" that it's known for, Entine wrote. Instead, "newly minted" reporter Ian Urbina "focused exclusively on the negative...rather than examining both the risks and benefits of the shale gas bonanza."

Since early 2011 a series of stories that the NYT has dubbed "Drilling Down" have zeroed in on the shale gas industry and its effect on the environment and communities (see NGI, July 4, 2011; June 13, 2011; March 7, 2011). Following their publication, critics accused the newspaper of "fear mongering," being "deliberately misleading," and including "willful and deliberate errors." The NYT's public editor at the time, Arthur Brisbane, also admonished the newspaper for what he considered to be biased reporting (see NGI, July 25, 2011; July 11, 2011).

A year later the newspaper "still hasn't rebalanced its coverage," and its "institutionalized bias concerns appear to be spreading," said Entine. As an example, he said the NYT's Learning Network blog, which provides teachers and students with supplemental information on some issues had released a one-sided "Fuel for Debate" lesson plan. (Urbina is not the author of the blog.)

"In theory, the Learning Network is an admirable public outreach effort -- when it fulfills its mission," he said. "But when it falls short, it can actually do more harm than good mostly because the Times' name confers an aura of objectivity and fairness. In this case, the Times falls far short of that standard in its discussion of the controversy over shale gas" and fracking. The three blog authors, who Entine claims have "no expertise in this area and little combined science reporting experience," had made "the prejudicial choice of focusing almost exclusively on the controversy rather than on the broad issue in all its glory and warts -- adopting, as did Ian Urbina, the narrative of the shale gas critics."

By every measure, wrote Entine, "the discovery of deep reservoirs of shale gas in the United States and around the world is economically and politically transformative -- for better and possibly for worse. It's a geo-political game changer with the most democratic countries of the world, including the United States, poised to be the big economic winners."

However, none of the potential benefits of shale gas were included in the Learning Network packet, he said. "Clearly, a comprehensive look at shale gas, especially in a learning plan, should address the range of trade-offs that a 'disruptive' new technology might bring. But focus only on environmental problem, and doing so using the language of activists? That's bias."

Asked Entine, "Is the Times, at least in its coverage of shale gas, throwing its lot with 21st century Luddites? We have in our grasp game-changing technologies not unlike those that drove prior revolutions. None comes without trade offs. That's an enormously rich subject for students and the general public to debate. The Times, in its news pages and its lesson plans, has repeatedly pledged not to take advocacy positions. This 'lesson plan' does them a disservice by focusing on the trees instead of on the forest."

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