New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane gave a dressing down to reporter Ian Urbina’s heavily criticized recent Sunday front-page article on natural gas extraction, “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush,” in his Sunday column, “Clashing Views on the Future of Natural Gas.” The benign headline concealed a reasonably incisive critique, accusing Urbina of making unsubstantiated claims and failing to provide sufficient opposing views.
Urbina (pictured) has also penned questionable articles on the supposed environmental dangers of “fracking,” a process used to extract natural gas from shale. Brisbane wrote Sunday:
A New York Times article last month, “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush,” warned across two columns at the top of the front page that high expectations for companies drilling shale gas might be headed for a fall. It was the kind of story you wish The Times had written about Enron before it collapsed. Or about Bernard Madoff.
The June 26 article, written by Ian Urbina, was clearly intended to offer that kind of signal and specifically invoked “Enron,” “Ponzi schemes” and “dot-coms” in the early paragraphs.
Raising the prospect of a fall, though, is a journalistic gamble. Adding to the risk, the story painted its subject with an overly broad brush and didn’t include dissenting views from experts who aren’t entrenched on one side or another of the subject. After publication, critics jumped in with both feet.
The article’s sourcing has also been questioned. The Times presented a large array of e-mails -- some recent, some three and four years old -- from geologists, analysts, energy executives and others who expressed the belief that companies were exaggerating their prospects. The Times excised the names but not the company affiliations from the e-mails. It was from this trove, which became part of a 487-page online document collection for readers to peruse, that the hot-button references to dot-coms, Ponzi schemes and Enron were pulled for the text of the article.
Brisbane focused on bias by omission in the case of one prominent Times source, shale industry critic Deborah Rogers:
Ms. Rogers, a former stockbroker, was described as serving on an advisory group of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. What was not mentioned was that her primary business was a small agricultural operation and that she had clashed with Chesapeake Energy, a leading shale gas producer, over its drilling on land next to hers. Mr. Bryant told me it wasn’t necessary to mention this because the issue had not resulted in litigation and Ms. Rogers was clearly presented as an industry critic.
Brisbane concluded “such a pointed article needed more convincing substantiation, more space for a reasoned explanation of the other side and more clarity about its focus....the article went out on a limb, lacked an in-depth dissenting view in the text and should have made clear that shale gas had boomed."