Covering the Hot New Energy Story: Hydrofracking

“Fracking,” as it’s called, is being heralded by natural gas developers as a way to cheaply deliver an abundance of energy. And it’s been one of the most extensively reported environmental issues of the past year. But is it the answer to our energy woes, or another danger to the environment? Are journalists doing a good job covering the issue?
Here are a few examples of recent stories about hydrofracking:
What do you think of these stories? What are the strongest and weakest elements? What other kinds of stories about hydrofracking would you like to see?
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About jhalpert

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist with more than two decades of experience writing for national publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek, CNNMoney.com, iVillage, Fortune.com, and AARP Bulletin. She currently contributes regularly to over 25 publications. She is also the co-author of Making Up With Mom (http://www.makingupwithmom.com/) and has recently started blogging for The Huffington Post. Her subjects have focused on everything from how auto makers will reinvent themselves following bankruptcy, to the viability of various environmentally-friendly technologies and how boomers will reinvent retirement. She also covers parenting and family issues for such magazines as Parents, Family Circle, MORE and Redbook. She has reported on the air for many public radio programs, including The Environment Report, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She also co-teaches an environmental journalism class in the University of Michigan's Program in the Environment and was a founder of The Society of Environmental Journalists.

18 Responses to “Covering the Hot New Energy Story: Hydrofracking”

  1. Because I, and probably most people, have trouble conceptualizing what “fracking” actually looks like, and how wells work in general, the ProPublica article was particularly helpful in explaining the purpose and function of the wells through their graphics along the side of the page. With ever-expanding technology, I think it’s important to include videos (which some of these article did) or graphics to supplement the text of the article.

    I’d imagine that it’d be difficult to write a story about such a controversial topic, because there are so very few well-informed people who do not have a strong stance on the side. It makes sense to use sources that have been affected strongly by the “fracking,” but also it seems that government officials do not take the risk/threat of “fracking’ seriously, so how does a journalist go about getting an unbiased view? I thought the New York Times article did a really good job of stating the facts and not inserting bias. I think more could have been done in all of these articles to explain the side of the oil companies and how exactly they profit and how they might suffer from more regulations against “fracking.” After all, their role in this country is partially to provide more affordable oil solutions, and they have found on in “fracking,” but is in unmoral, in the least, to sacrifice potential environmental conflicts (leaks and such) to lower gas prices for everyone?

  2. Hydraulic fracking seems to present itself to be an issue of cost vs. benefit. This method of gas extraction is more eco-friendly than traditional gas extraction methods. Even though fracking, as it is often called, supplies large amount of gas and energy to people, it comes at a cost. This method is believed to have contaminated drinking water supplies and in some cases, releasing poisonous chemicals into the air. Hundreds of people all over the country have reported symptoms that they believe were linked to fracking. When water supplies were tested by many environmental agencies in certain areas with fracking, they found chemicals detrimental to human health.

    This is not the first time an issue like this has been around…remember Japan and the issue of nuclear power? Even in Japan, the country continued to build nuclear power plants despite people complaining about health problems and the potentials for health problems in the future. All I can think is, will the same thing happen here? While hydrofracking is deemed a safer and easier method of gas extraction than methods before, at what cost will we continue to employ this method? When will the cost outweigh the benefit? And if so, will we recognize this point when it happens?

    • Haris, I appreciate your comments in this discussion. Now, please add a separate blog post on a current article related to fracking that you’ve read so students can comment on it. Thanks!

  3. As the topic of my magazine feature article is fracking in Oakland County, Michigan, I found this week’s readings especially interesting. It seemed to me the general trend of all of these articles was to present the opposition to fracking, namely that it’s potentially hazardous to drinking water, and then to present an expert or government official who deems it as a necessary and cost-effective step that’s not particularly dangerous to the environment.

    My question is how to journalists, and myself in particular, break out of this reporting mold? Is it possible to present a different angle to the story without inserting a bias? How does a reporter wishing to write on such a partisan issue differentiate her writing from the other articles already written on the subject? Hopefully I’ll be able to figure this out for my magazine feature!

  4. I found our readings interesting this week, mainly because I didn’t know much about fracking before this class.

    One thing that kept going through my mind while I was reading the articles was the difference in tone between the articles that dealt with fracking in general and those that were dealing with fracking in one specific place. In our case it was Michigan, and one article even had a story footed in Washtenaw County. So, this question most likely doesn’t have a true answer, but might foster some discussion. When gearing an article to a specific location (such as Washtenaw) what do you think the author needs to do differently than when writing an article for the general public? Obviously they have to change the way they write the story to appeal to the people of the specific location. But what do you think are some factors that journalists need to add, subtract, or modify from more “general” writing?

  5. In the annarbor.com article, the definition of fracking is not introduced until the middle of the piece. I think this would have served better at the beginning, priming readers with a background of the topic. In my reading experience, I could not picture a vivid process without the description of fracking. The author went on in the section entitled “Fracking: Old and New” to drop names of horizontal and vertical drilling. As I read on, it became clear that horizontal drilling is a part of hydrofracking, and it is a newer method, compared to the traditional method of vertical drilling. This helped me distinguish the two methods, but there was no description in the article of how each one is done. I think that both of the issues that I have just showcased are detrimental to this article, and furthermore, may fail evoke concern about the possibility of fracking entering the Washtenaw County community, because it lacks imagery. The extent of my playing out a scene of hydrofracking is living on a farm and an oil well disrupting my peace. I have no concept of the power or noise of the drilling contraption, its size, or how often it is drilling holes into the Earth.
    Another issue with this piece is that its purpose is hazy. The title suggests that the article focuses primarily on the repercussions and dangers of fracking. Yet, the author goes way beyond this, and the article is basically a Wikipedia page about fracking. I don’t think that the information is invaluable, but I just don’t think this is an argumentative piece, as its title would lead the reader to believe. In fact, the article doesn’t really make me fear hydrofracking. As for my health, the article quotes a few sources that say there is no direct evidence that the process itself is the cause of contaminated drinking water. As for the environment and the sustainability of Earth, there is no reason given to suspect that deeper drilling beneath the Earth’s surface is dangerous or has dangerous implications that will emerge in future years.

    • Abby, these are interesting observations. Amy will be one of our guest speakers, so make sure you ask her about these issues, and why she decided to put the piece together in this format.

  6. After doing the readings for this week, I also observed the difference in tone between various articles. While some, such as Jay Greene’s article “Fracking in Michigan appears on the upswing” jump in with revenue and spending numbers, others such as the New York Time’s article “The Fracturing of Pennsylvania” begins the piece with calm and beautiful imagery of someone’s farm. These beginnings help the reader understand the message and opinion that the author is trying to convey. I wish that these articles would eliminate the flowery background and intimidating numbers and simply provide a definition of fracking and then a list of the top benefits and risks. I understand that beneath each risk and benefit comes a lengthy explanation, but at least it is straightforward. I feel as if many of these articles focus too much on the history and bureaucracy of fracking and not enough about the pros and cons for the people themselves.

    My question is: Could reporters write articles that are less fluffy and more to the point, without it being a list or a scientific paper? What are some strategies that journalists can use to create a factual piece that is still interesting the reader, without leaning towards one side of a story?

  7. Before this class, I had never heard of hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) but now I am glad I have insight into it because it seems like a pertinent and really socially divisive issue. There is a lot that can be said about hydraulic facturing – it’s cheap and a great source of energy, it’s degrades the environment, it is another careless act of capital greed- really, I could go on for hours and hours but as these weekly questions are more focused on the journalism side of things, I have to tailor my question to the technicalities of the articles.

    Many of the articles for this week use quite specific and highbrow ways of explaining the controversial issue of fracking, that if read to the untrained reader might come across as gobbledygook. Even the quotes, mostly from educated and high-powered individuals (as seen in the Crainsdetroit.com article), have the potential to alienate a substantial portion of the general public because of a) the way they are spoken, b) the terminology that is used and c) the fact that they are being spoken by exclusively blue-blooded individuals e.g.

    Saulius Mikalonis, an environmental attorney with Plunkett Cooney in Troy, said Michigan’s 100-page regulations are fairly strict in how companies can conduct hydraulic fracturing.
    “They can’t use surface water; they have to replace water taken out with water pumped back in; wells have to be located safe distances from one another to avoid cross-contamination; and casings are required for the wells,” he said.

    What I would like to ask is: If journalists are the middlemen between the big issues and the public, can the public’s lack of knowledge of certain issues be blamed on the writing style of the journalists if the stories they are reading are written too specifically or tailored for only a select few? Or should the public just accept that they are not going to be understand every issue that is going on in the world? Which of the two has worser consequences?

  8. I found the readings particularly interesting this week, especially their differences. Some of the articles jumped right into issues dealing with fracking, while others provide a bit of a background as to what fracking actually means. The Yale Environment 360 Forum goes right into “expert” opinions about fracking, while the Watershed Council article provides an extremely detailed description of fracking, including photos and diagrams to help the reader understand. Is it important for journalists to provide an explanation of the topic they are writing about? Or should they assume that the readers have some general background knowledge?

    Going back to the Yale Environment 360 Forum, I liked that the author provided opinion’s from different perspectives. While I think it is extremely important to address multiple sides to the story, I found it kind of hard to understand the facts behind fracking. Lee Fuller, the executive director of Energy in Depth says, “1.1 million wells have been enhanced thanks to the fracturing process.” On the other hand, Amy Mall says fracking is “putting people and communities at risk.” Is fracking beneficial or harmful? I find it very interesting that all of these different individuals have differing opinions depending on their background. Though it was confusing at times, I thought it was still a crucial part of the piece.

    How should journalists address multiple sides of a story? What ways can they describe differing opinions while still keeping the reader interested and preventing any confusion?

  9. When journalists have to cover issues that are highly scientific and technical, how do they draw in readers and keep their attention throughout the piece? In the New York Times and ProPublica articles on fracking, the authors use a human approach that, at least in my opinion, keeps readers interested in what they have to say. They relate the pros and cons of fracking through a person’s experience, rather than simply stating what they are. I think this creates empathy with the reader and allows the audience to have a better grasp on the issue.

    Are there other ways for creating and maintaining a reader’s interest throughout a scientific piece? Do you think there are better ways for the pros and cons of an issue to be explained? Are there any risks or problems associated with only using a human approach to garner attention?

  10. These articles present ‘fracking’ in different ways, which allow for a comprehensive look into an issue I knew little about. So thank you for picking some great articles. I would like to address the concept of personal stories versus informative stories. In the New York Times article takes a more informative look into fracking, highlighting the history, impact, and cost/benefits of the process. As someone who knew almost nothing about it this article was important to read and use as a tool for understanding future articles. The article itself was long and detailed, so what impact does this have on a reader? Is it worth publishing something that may not be as interesting to a reader because it presents facts instead of an exciting story?
    The other article I think is important to discuss is the Propublica article about a personal story of health side effects of ‘fracking’. Using a person’s story changes the view a reader might have on the issue. In my opinion, using a story helps readers relate to the issue and puts themselves in the shoes of the subject. It is also more interesting to read since you become invested in the story. In your opinions, what is a more successful approach in presenting a complicated environmental issue? Which is more important? How can techniques be used to combine in one successful, interesting story?

  11. Most of the readings seemed to be discussing whether fracking is beneficial or simply costly. I think establishing why fracking is such an issue really made the articles engaging. My only issue with the readings was that they were so long. Length is something to keep in mind, especially when writing about such technical topics. How could some of these articles have reduced their content to keep the articles concise? Would the articles have been just as effective if topics related to fracking were not included?

  12. I think these articles, particularly those from ProPublica and New York Times, did a nice job covering fracking because they included a human element in their stories. As other students have noted, fracking is a very technical process that involves all sorts of instruments and chemicals with strange and complicated names. Including humans in the story helps to avoid alienating readers who either don’t understand, or don’t care to learn more about, the more technical aspects. Although fracking is about removing natural gas from deep underground to use as an energy source, this process is also about people. This practice affects landowners across the nation and has the potential to impact future human (and environmental) health in a major way. Stories about fracking that fail to touch on these human elements miss a major point. At the same time, as I mentioned, it’s not ALL about humans. That said, how can journalists strike a balance between the science/technical aspects of fracking and human stories? Should one be featured more prominently than the other? I also agree with Ruhee’s comment that the articles were rather long. To build off that, and address balance, I wonder, how can reporters create this balance in a concise way that keeps readers engaged and presents important facts?

  13. Fracking, like any process to extract oil or natural gas, is, in its nature, invasive. However, not all invasive processes can be deducted as simply bad or good. I think that the articles posted did a great job of proving this point.

    On that note, when environmental journalists report on fracking mishaps (or potential hazards), how do they remain neutral in their reporting? How does, for that mater, a make sure that they’re reporting on “both sides of the issue” especially in regards to fracking, which has a spectrum of opinions and thoughts. How does a journalist choose which views to report on and which to not over report on?

  14. I really was intrigued by the contrasting viewpoints of the AnnArbor.com article and the ProPublica articles. For one, the ProPublica started with such a vivid description of the situation that poor woman had to endure because of fracking and apparent enviromental contamination. With the picture and the author’s words, I was instantly hooked and convinced that whatever this article said – I believed it! Very convincing.
    On the other hand, the AnnArbor.com article seemed very nonchalant on the issue of fracking. It gave me the impression of, “Fracking? Yea, so what?” It particularly resonated with me because, having grown up in Saline, I recognized some of the last names of farmers that did have fracking on their land and are considered the old, founding family lines of Saline. I thought, if they are willing to use their precious land and if they trust it – I should too. I think ‘name-dropping’ in this article was very successful, not just in my specific case, but because the reader can see just how many families have taken the plunge or risk of fracking and seem to be doing fine.
    The contrast of the articles further tells me that people are very polar about this issue, and has not helped sway me at all on either side of the issue because I saw the value in both.

  15. How does fear play into the large part of news reporting? This is the main emotion that is used by journalism and the media that people convey as so negative. Fear may be a great motivator for so many but it brings great stress into our lives. It is hard to convey the importance in any other way. Is there any other way to get people to take action with other tactics other than with fear. I see this strategy used especially when the issue can hit close to home, literally too. When the drilling is local many other emotions come into play. Fracking is a stellar example of this. When an audience cannot connect to the significance of Fracking, then no action seems to be taken. But act completely differently when it is in their backyard.

  16. From all of these articles, it is clear that hydrofracking is an issue that needs to be addressed soon. However, it is a very hard concept to understand especially for someone not science-oriented. I like the Propublica article for this reason because it helped me gain a better understand of the issue at hand. Oppositely, the NYT article was overly flowery and initially read more like a Walt Whitman poem that a NYT magazine article about an important issue. As I read on, some things became a little clearer, but it was a very tedious read and I found myself googling more than understanding. I think its important for articles on issues like this to make sure the reader understands the issue before they delve into scenarios and anecdotes.

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