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Objectivity Lost: Journalist Covering Shale Gas Sues Same Industry

I don’t read the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune.  For that matter, I don’t read the closest newspaper to my home, the Charlotte Observer.  I don’t read these rags for a simple reason: I find the that the objectivity that is claimed within their pages is a sham.  There are plenty of polls and countless bits of anecdotal evidence and investigations that have shown a liberal bias that overwhelmingly represents the modern newspaper.

I basically stick to three kinds of news: partisan news, where I can at least trust that the person speaking is fully aware of and honest about their personal bias; breaking news, which is the kind of news that often hasn’t figured out how to address the narrative that they are eventually going to apply to it; and finally, word of mouth.  Word of mouth isn’t a luxury that every person has, but I know enough people and have enough contacts that I’m often able to find out what’s going on by simply talking to people I trust.

Within the ever shrinking world of the newspapers I ignore is the paper of record for Denton, Texas: The Denton Record-Chronicle.  Within the pages of this old world media artifact is a journalist named Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe.  Peggy is the designated reporter on the Shale Gas industry which is a very important issue in the state of Texas.  She also happens to be suing that industry for building a gas processing plant near her home.

Now, Peggy may be the nicest lady in the world.  She could be the most honest, straight-up, caring and unbiased person that’s ever walked the face of the Earth.  I can’t say for certain since I’ve never met her.  But there’s a phrase that comes to mind when someone is in a position that conflicts with another position: appearance of impropriety.  It’s something that Rick Perry took heat for when he pushed through Gardasil while also being friends with and former boss of the lobbyist that worked for the company that made Gardasil.  It’s something Jeffrey Immelt was scrutinized for as he pushed for government subsidized “green” jobs (while serving  an advisor in an official capacity for President Obama yet simultaneously expanded the company he leads to expand their green technology manufacturing).

Peggy has the same type of issue.  For her, it starts with a situation we can all empathize with: she’s concerned about a corporation putting a factory uncomfortably close to her home.  This type of situation can cause all kinds of headaches, from resell values to health concerns.  As such, she has joined in a lawsuit targeting several natural gas producers in the area.  If I were in her position, and I truly believed there were an issue and felt that I had the power to stop it using the megaphone which has been so graciously provided to me by RedState.com and BigJournalism.com, I would absolutely do so.

But there is a big difference between my megaphone and Peggy’s megaphone: mine is an openly partisan and opinionated format where I express my opinions based on the facts as I perceive them.  Her’s is as a member of the dying breed of ‘objective journalists.’  She’s there to report the facts, not express opinions.  In fact, Peggy is the lead natural gas reporter for the Denton Record-Chronicle.

A mighty megaphone for her plight, and one she has not been afraid to use in the least while hiding behind the facade of objective journalism.  Here are a few examples of how she’s attempting to alter the narrative.

She’s written articles linking breast cancer to Shale.  She’s used headlines that are themselves an accusation like “Practice Lays Waste to Land” wherein she quoted people that may as well be testifying on her behalf in the lawsuit:

“My advice to anyone dealing with the gas industry: Sell your whole place, get the hell out,” Ross says. “They cheat you out of your money, wreck your view and destroy your property value.”

These quotes that serve as testimony include, but are not limited to, stories aimed at convincing people that breast cancer is the next outcome for them and of course, stories involving children developing cancer:

Therefore, the EPA is proposing new rules to reduce benzene emissions from production equipment. That comes as little comfort to Arlington resident Dixie Fields, whose daughter developed leukemia when she was 2 1/2 years old, and who recently tried to prevent the drilling of yet another gas well in their neighborhood. She had two questions when her daughter was diagnosed: Would she die, and why did this happen? Fields’ daughter survived. But now she’s learned at least one possible answer to her other question. Benzene causes leukemia, she said. (emphasis mine)

This might still tug at your heartstrings since, after all, who wouldn’t try to protect their families by using every tool at their disposal?  But again, this isn’t about the truth of her statements, it’s about the ability for her to approach it objectively given her circumstance.

But, as long as we’re on the subject of the truth of her statements, there are some questions about that as well.

For instance, according Energy In Depth (EID) a research and public outreach campaign launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) in 2009, a new study has revealed no significant health risks:

  • No ’significant health threats’ found in air quality study: A long-anticipated air quality study released Thursday by the city found five natural gas sites with high emission rates but “did not reveal any significant health threats” to residents. (Fort Worth Star Telegram, 7/14/11)
  • Study: No “Significant Health Risks” From Natural Gas Emissions: An air quality study of natural gas drilling sites in Fort Worth found no significant health threats, the city said Thursday. The long-awaited study by Eastern Research Group Inc. looked at the impact of natural gas exploration and production on Fort Worth’s air quality. According to the study, emissions do not reach levels that cause adverse health effects, although five sites have emission rates that exceed regulatory thresholds. Mayor Betsy Price said she was encouraged by the findings. (NBC Dallas-Fort Worth,7/14/11)
  • Fort Worth air quality report released: The long awaited study by the Eastern Research Group did not reveal any “significant health threats.” … Fort Worth’s new mayor, Betsy Price, said the report’s conclusions brought a sense of relief. “We’ve all been sitting on pins and needles waiting to see,” she said. “I hope it makes people feel better.” She called the report the most comprehensive study of its kind, and said it should relieve fears about pollution from gas drilling. (WFAA-TV, 7/14/11)
  • Study: FW gas industry causes little air health concern (Dallas Business Journal, 7/14/11)
  • Drilling in Fort Worth isn’t harming health, study says (Dallas Morning News, 7/14/11)

And the “laying waste” claim?

“Shale gas operators are increasingly relying on horizontal well completions to optimize recovery and well economics. Horizontal drilling provides more exposure to a formation than does a vertical well. This increase in reservoir exposure creates a number of advantages over vertical wells drilling. Six to eight horizontal wells drilled from only one well pad can access the same reservoir volume as sixteen vertical wells. Using multi-well pads can also significantly reduce the overall number of well pads, access roads, pipeline routes, and production facilities required, thus minimizing habitat disturbance, impacts to the public, and the overall environmental footprint.”

Now, I’m certain Peggy would say that some of these findings are insignificant given that the source is directly tied to a particular outcome.  Perhaps she’s right.  Perhaps that’s why I was unable to find anything by Peggy telling her readers about these claims which counter her previous articles.

A simple question then to Mrs. Heinkel-Wolfe: how are you any different?

Cross-Posted at Big Journalism.

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