The media's fracking gas problem

Two months ago I wrote about the promise of natural gas made possible by a method of freeing from shale deposits deep under the surface. It's called fracking and you would have thought from some of the reaction that I had used the other F-word. Here's what I wrote in a Tribune op-ed and posted here.

Spectacularly vast stores of natural gas — by some estimates a staggering 837 trillion cubic feet — trapped in shale formations thousands of feet below our nation's surface could endow America with decades of energy independence.

But the method of exacting the natural gas, a process nicknamed fracking, could be the next environmental superdebate. Maybe it won't be as cosmic as the battle over global warming, but it certainly could rival the acid rain hysteria of the 1970s and the '80s.

My critics accused me of ignoring the "real" science that confirmed all the alleged hazards caused by fracking. Some even presumed that I denied evolution. They knew of the scientific arguments against fracking  because that's what the media have reported.

But now comes an interesting examination of the media coverage of two studies, one that is supportive of fracing and the other critical. Guess which one got more coverage?

Thus, the recent appearance of two scientific studies that bear directly on fracking provide a kind of natural experiment on media sensationalism. Study One was critical of natural gas development; Study Two was supportive. How much coverage did each get in the mainstream media? The score: Study One – 24 big-city newspaper articles and an NPR appearance; Study Two – two newspaper articles, one of them in a story primarily about Study One.

The well-articulated conclusion of the article:

The immediate takeaway from this story of dueling studies is that readers should be alert to the possibility that the media is emitting its own gas into this debate. The broader point is that the media’s treatment of scientific studies should be treated as a kind of rolling health scare, a structural imbalance based on a selection bias that is unlikely to change anytime soon. So what are news consumers to do in the short run? Just remember, the most deceptive lead in science journalism is, “A new study shows…”


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