What the frack? “Digging deep” (no pun intended) with fracking coverage

It’s common knowledge that presenting each side of a story is key to writing an unbiased article. Even if the author takes a position on the issue, acknowledging the opposition contributes to a better-developed and more credible piece. However, this “he said, she said” type of reporting has been receiving criticism lately (link to explanation of “he said, she said” reporting). Critics emphasize the fact that journalists only present superficial information and do not dig deeper into underlying economic or political influences surrounding a particular opinion or stance. This is particularly hard to avoid for scientific issues, like fracking, that are difficult to conceptualize. Before digging deeper into the dispute, journalists must first be able to convey a basic understanding and explanation of the issue.

This article discusses the strategies used by fracking companies to convey information and how journalists should cover the issue in response to them. One idea mentioned was how “he said, she said” reporting creates uncertainty for readers. With interest groups from both sides pushing their own opinions and agendas, the public should have independent journalists to sort out fact from fiction for them. But in order to do so, journalists need to step away from “he said, she said” reporting.

Considering everything stated in the article, what do you think are the reasons hindering journalists from going beyond “he said, she said” reporting when covering fracking? Is it laziness or the need to meet deadlines? Could it possibly be the difficulty in finding unbiased sources? Do journalists want to avoid alienating readers? Something I found interesting in the article was the “war on journalists” and the legal threats journalists potentially face when covering a hot topic issue like fracking. If any or none of these issues seem reasonable, what then are other possibilities? Do you think journalists are already doing a good job covering fracking? What strategies could journalists employ to overcome these obstacles for more in-depth coverage on fracking so audiences can develop a more complete understanding and are not left with feelings of uncertainty?

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10 Responses to “What the frack? “Digging deep” (no pun intended) with fracking coverage”

  1. Hi Stephanie, very thoughtful post. I think it’s really difficult to get beyond the “he said, she said” because topics like “fracking” are SO technical, and the journalists would need to understand the inner workings of oil drilling, wells, and the oil industry to be able to inject much personally-informed information. There are some journalists who focus on very specific topics, say, a sports reporter might just cover one team, but I don’t think there is generally money or demand for journalists to be specifically covering something like the oil industry enough to be knowledgeable about issues like “fracking,” other than reporting what “he said, she said.”

    It’s really hard for journalists to have in-depth coverage of issues like this, especially because there is such a strong anti-fracking movement around the country, and it’s hard not to get biased information. If someone doesn’t have strong feelings about (mostly against) the “fracking” issue, they generally don’t know the issue very well. How can we find informed, and non-biased sources? That’s a really difficult issue, because the more informed people become on a topic like this, it seems the more biased they are!

  2. Hi Stephanie. I was wondering the same thing as I read some of these articles.

    In my opinion, journalists probably use what they can to get their story out. I don’t think it is a factor of laziness, but could definitely be from them being too busy or the unavailability of other sources. Going off of myself personally, I had no clue what fracking was before I enrolled in this course. Consequently I did not have an opinion on it. I feel like this would be true of others, too. Like Peter said above, you either have a strong opinion one way, or you probably don’t know much about the issue. I think that can go for almost every issue that goes in the news.

    In my profile assignment for this class, I may not be able to get a conflicting view from the person I profiled, and honestly there may not be anything I can do. If a credible, non-biased opinion is not available, it cannot be included in a piece. I do think, however, that some journalists may bias the story themselves and purposely add these types of sources to liven them up. I think this could go either way, as one side of the audience could be upset that their side did not get covered correctly, while the other side may praise the journalist and continue to work with him/her. As in every aspect of life, there is definitely human error that can screw things up.

  3. Incidentally, my magazine feature for this class will be looking at the fracking in Oakland County, and I have been asking myself these same questions. It seems like the majority of the articles we read follow the “he said, she said” sentiment, but then again I don’t think that’s prevalent only to “hot” issues. As we’ve discussed in many classes, journalists have, it appears, been forced to adopt a more “neutral” standpoint on issues so as not to upset different groups as our country becomes more partisan and divided. So when it comes to something like fracking, where there are so many different interest groups out there with different agendas, it’s hard, if not impossible, to really gauge what’s actually going on with fracking.

    I found the Yale blog especially interesting, because there were 2 very distinct sides, and all of the experts on each side said the same things as the other experts on their respective sides. So who are we, as generally uninformed readers, supposed to believe?

    I agree with Peter and Adam that we need journalists to investigate these issues who have no stake in the outcome. We need journalists who are informed and who can produce an article without fear of consequences. Unfortunately, with increasing industry influence this becomes more and more difficult. I think this puts more pressure on the reader to become informed on their own rather than relying on mainstream media outlets.

    I also think journalists need to take more risks and write an article that either talks primarily of the risks, or talks primarily of the benefits.

  4. Thank you for bringing the topic of “he said – she said” reporting to my attention. The topic of fracking, and many other environmental issues, is a prime subject for this conflict. I definitely agree with Peter on the matter of reporting on fracking. If we readers want to learn facts rather than opinions or arguments on the matter, we need someone who can completely devote their self to this matter for a long period if time, and (as Alicia suggested) would write an article simply with facts of benefits and/or consequences of fracking. Time is definitely the issue at play. I like to believe that if passionate reporters did not have deadlines or were not threatened by the need for money, then they would do a thorough job of investigation on topics of their interest. This being said, reality is that time is an issue and devotion to both learning and writing on a subject is on a time limit. This leads me to wonder if perhaps reporting on a subject like this, or other scientific research, should be provided by scientists involved with research. Although this raises questions of their ability to communicate with the public, perhaps there should a position for each research group where someone is in charge of releasing information in a basic and informative way.

    I also found the Yale article very interesting on this matter and think that it is a constructive method for giving information to the readers. Instead of having one article summing up the thoughts of others, the article is comprised of small excerpts of opposing views. This method allows readers who do not have the time or particular interest in researching the situation to construct opinions quickly on a very surface level. Although this is not ideal, it is better than reading one opinion piece of the subject.

    It is interesting how something that sounds so simple – reporting facts – turns into such a difficult task. We are humans and emotions and thoughts get involved frequently and often not even purposefully. This being said, I do believe that it is almost impossible for someone who knowledgeable on a subject to omit their bias. Because, as Peter, Adam and Alicia have also mentioned, once someone gets that involved on a subject, one cannot help but form an opinion on the subject matter.

  5. Hi Stephanie, I definitely do agree with the article- I think that the “he said, she said” type of reporting so prevalent in environmental journalism, trivializes the professionalism and credibility of journalists. However, I find it hard to blame journalists for turning to “he said, she said” because, in some cases, this low form of journalism is excusable- particularly in the case of ‘fracking’ where there is so much intricately nuanced information to know that most journalists will not have a strong, educated and most importantly, honest perspective on the issue. Prior to taking this class, I had never heard of ‘fracking’ and I just asked my housemates if they knew what the term meant and none of them had ever heard of it either and if (god forbid) I was given the task of having to write a piece on fracking with a very short deadline and limited neutral sources, I would probably resort to using “he said, she said” type of reporting too. I do think, though, that “he said, she said” is just a false balancing act and goes against why many people (including those in this class) have chosen to become journalists in the first place- we shouldn’t have to be telling half-lies and half-truths to the public, we should be providing real answers for things they need to know.

    You do bring up a good question though, if whether journalists use “he said, she said” to avoid alienating their readership. I think that “he said, she said” can definitely be an easy way out for journalists who know very little about the topic at hand to not alienate the readers of their publication or incite anger and confusion in the public. For example, if a journalist who knew little about fracking took a really strong stance against/for it, there would need to be follow-up stories, they would have to face questions from the media and backlash from the public- they would pretty much be confronted with things that an uninformed journalist simply could not handle.

    I think a possible solution to this issue is to ask the media conglomerates who employ journalists to assign stories based on the expertise of a journalist in a particular field. This would mean more jobs for journalists and more credibility for publications, but of course, with the current economic times, where jobs are being cut on such a frequent basis, costs undeniably override concerns about journalistic integrity; so unfortunately this “he said, she said” false balancing act might be around for a long time.

    I can tell that you put a lot of work into formulating these questions so I hope I have successfully answered everything you’ve asked!
    See you in class.

  6. When journalists report on a highly technical issues it seems a lot can be lost in the story because time is dedicated to explaining processes. On the other hand, if a journalist doesn’t explain some technical aspects it will go over the head of an average reader. In regards to journalists alienating readers, I think there is an underlying hope for all writers to be inclusive in their writing and it is expecting for all major publications.

    With cuts to journalist jobs I believe we have seen less expert reporting in the daily news and this leads to the he said she said business. There isn’t enough time to do detailed reports on every topic and some times stories suffer. I think this is true in any topic of news, not just environment, but it leaves a lot to be desired in knowledge grabbing. I hadn’t heard a lot about fracking before this course, and as someone who follows health and environmental news often, it surprises me I didn’t know more. That could either be my fault for skipping over stories I didn’t understand headlines for, or that there isn’t enough reporting.

    To overcome this lack of reporting and expert details I think journalists need to find a niche and stick to it. While this isn’t always possible, it would be beneficial for writers to stick to a category to make sure they are equally covering all aspects of the news. In cases where there are experts, a collection of legitimate sources, detailed fact checking, and researching for themselves. I appreciate these questions for review Stephanie!

  7. Stephanie, that was a very thoughtful post and great links to explain the issues. In my opinion, there can be many causes of why the “he said, she said” method is used in reporting about topics like fracking. Fracking is a concept the general public doesn’t resonate with and it looks to people like journalists to bring it to their attention. But even journalists aren’t familiar with this topic as much as they are expected to. Journalists’ have the job of doing research and finding the right facts about their topic, but even research isn’t enough sometimes. This goes back to establishing good communication skills between scientists and journalists to ensure proper reporting.

    In order to create such communication skills, many hours of research have to be put into understanding a topic and relating it to things people care about. Fracking, in particular, isn’t a topic that can be juggled with many other stories. It would need much time and effort devoted to it in order to come up with a story that really highlights the major concepts of it and raises interest. I think I agree with Kirsten that sometimes journalists should find a niche and stick to it. It results in more effective and reliable reporting.

    At the end of the day fracking is a technical process and for people to understand it, stories need to be easy to understand and concise. Some of the stories/blogs that I read about fracking are so lengthy that I was confused and hardly could get through them. It’s a matter of making fracking personal and interesting by engaging the audience with more local examples like the Washtenaw well.

  8. I think two main reasons that it has been difficult for journalists to move beyond this “he said-she said” reporting is that fracking is not only a polarized issue, but is difficult to access information on. By this I mean that it is challenging for journalists to retrieve information on the chemicals and technologies used in hydraulic fracturing because the industry keeps this information secret. As the “Dig Deeper” article mentions, it is difficult to get objective and unbiased information on the health and environmental risks fracking poses when the industry hides “behind trade secret exemptions.” Because of this, I don’t think that journalists are being lazy. I think the nature of this industry as well as the laws that prevent it from being compelled to share information with the public and journalists make it difficult for truly objective reporting.

    It may be that journalists really do need to dig deeper to get better information to move away from this “he said-she said” reporting. Perhaps though, it requires larger institutional changes. The article explains that the fracking industry falls under exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which allows it to withhold information that might help fill in the gaps in the science and allow for more unbiased journalism. In that case, we need laws that hold industries, like the fracking industry, accountable. We need stronger legislation that makes these industries more transparent. Perhaps they really are withholding information because they are trade secrets and companies want to avoid competition, but in order to truly inform the public of the benefits and risks of hydraulic fracturing, as well as address the uncertainties behind the process, the science needs to be brought up to speed.

    In the meantime, since the science isn’t there, journalists have to be careful with their word choice. As the climate access article mentions, it is important that reporters avoid exaggerating the facts in their stories and stress the need for more scientific inquiry and legislation that holds the industry accountable to address the many uncertainties.

  9. In a world where our presidential debates are moderated by fact checkers, and our political ideologies govern who are facebook friends are, it’s not a stretch to imagine that our journalistic media is narrated a “he said she said” fashion. “He said she said” reporting reflects how certain issues are consumed by news readers. Fracking, in particular, seldom effects communities at large–unless something goes awry. It is because of that the politics of fracking dictate how the issue is portrayed in the media. Lay people aren’t necessarily going to have views the resonate with the actual mechanical process of fracking, nor are they going to be deeply moved by the legislative process governs the process, but they are going to be involved and consume a news story if it’s portrayed in a relatable, binary: good vs. bad, republican vs. democrat, rich vs. poor, environment vs. business.

    Until these binaries are reconstructed, I doubt that there will really be a totally unpolarized description of fracking that remains devoid of opinion, in the news media.

  10. These are excellent and deep questions. I think there are many possible answers to why journalists use the “he said, she said” method. The tendency and likelihood of employing this method depends on the size and relevance of the city/town that the journalist is reporting from and to. I honestly do not think any upright, virtuous, motivated journalist would use this method by their own volition. Instead, I think that it is when journalists are either: a) lazy, b) dishonest or scamming, or c) peer-pressured, that they engage in this random source utilization.

    a) One of the more common sense possibilities is that this method may result from a combination of laziness and deadlines that rush and tempt the journalist to skimp on research and just come up with some imaginary information or something they have heard on the street or in another newspaper.

    b) It is super convenient and strategic for journalists to use the “he said, she said” method when they are stirring up controversy. In the example of the fracking issue, a journalist that would want to totally turn people against it could just pick any sources that come to mind and stamp them to a comment about how the process is bad for the environment. It is especially effective and convincing when the source is an powerful, recognizable person, and if the reader is gullible/has not done his or her research. I mean, if the reader is clueless, the writer could pretty much say anything and have the reader convinced.

    c) A less commonly attributed reason is politics. I think the “he said, she said” technique might be a protection mechanism of the government, or whatever the affiliated group may be, from revealing its true colors. In this theory, some degree of fear has been instilled in the writer from a higher authority, such as his editor. The fear trickles down, too. The editor is pressured by his boss, who is pressured by the owner of the publication, who is pressured by a politician. The end game is about concealing the truth. For fracking, this could be expressed in several ways, since there are various stances on the topic. One example is, for a city governed by a staunch anti-fracking politician, pressure may trickle down to the writer to only write uplifting pieces about fracking. By only showing it in a positive light, the city can prevent any uprising or protest against its opinion or dissonance with their views and objectives. In other words, journalism that is forced to protect the views of the city that it reflects can only glamorize and support its goals.

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