Mountain States

Longmont Times-Call and Boulder Daily Camera Retract Article Filled with Negative, Inaccurate Information

Holding their publications to a high measure of accountability, The Longmont Times-Call and Boulder Daily Camera offered a rare retraction and front-page apology over the weekend on a story that failed to meet its editorial standards and was filled with inaccurate information that negatively portrayed Colorado’s oil and natural gas industry.

The story was reported by a staff writer for the Times-Call and, through a content-sharing agreement, was also published in the Daily Camera, which removed the story and offered the same correction, as well.

The article, “Air quality improves as Front Range stays home,” relied on the research of former CU Boulder professor Detlev Helmig, but the story contained “factual errors and information presented out of context” the newspaper’s managing editor explained after the Colorado Oil & Gas Association raised multiple, major issues with the story.

The editor, John Vahlenkamp, said that “nothing in this list of corrections is intended to question Helmig’s work,” but it doesn’t mention that Helmig was recently fired for violating his agreement with CU Boulder to keep his publicly funded research separate from his personal business pursuits. Vahlenkamp also told Energy In Depth that the reporter is no long employed with the Times-Call.

The issues with the story were so serious that the newspaper felt it necessary to completely remove the article from the website and post a correction on the front page of the newspaper instead of its typical place on page 2A after finding merit with COGA’s concerns:

“The editor checked the assertions of the COGA representatives against federal and state documents, as well as against charts and graphs from the air quality station that was the subject of the article and found COGA’s concerns to be valid.”

One concern that was raised by COGA was information on emissions that were taken out of context:

“The statement that ‘benzene, ethane and methane — three gases closely linked to oil and gas operations — have continued to spike’ does not provide numbers or context. COGA contends, based on charts found on the air monitoring station website, that ‘(o)utside of some sort of anomaly on (March) 29, the spikes are smaller, infrequent, and measurements almost appear flat over the previous couple weeks.’”

Another issue brought up by COGA was the use of ethane as a proxy measurement for methane. Energy In Depth has previously covered this problematic measurement.

“COGA disputes the statement made in the article that ‘(a)t the same time as this spike, there was a similar spike in ethane, suggesting the spike came from an oil and gas operation.’ Citing a study published by CU Boulder and NOAA in Geophysical Research Letters, titled ‘Long-Term Measurements Show Little Evidence for Large Increases in Total U.S. Methane Emissions Over the Past Decade,’ COGA stated that analysis has shown the use of ‘time-constant relationship between ethane and methane emissions’ is a ‘flawed approach.’”

The story also used an old quote from an official with Crestone Peak Resources without clarifying the context:

“A quote in the article attributed to Jason Oates, director of government affairs for Crestone Peak Resources, was first included in a January 2019 article written by the same reporter and was reused in the April 13 article, but was not presented as a quote from an earlier article. The April 13 article then suggested that Oates’ January statement was not supported by the data. However, Oates was not provided the opportunity to speak to assertions and data presented in the April 13 article.”

There were two other corrections made by the Times-Call including the locations of wells and the nature of their operations and suggested high levels of benzene that weren’t supported by data.

The editor also noted the reporter failed to reach out to anyone in the industry for its response:

“While multiple sources are quoted in the article, the editor can find no evidence that any person other than Helmig was interviewed specifically for this article. Journalism standards require an article to be fair to both sides of the issue it covers.”

At the end of the correction, the editor explained the newspaper’s responsibility to present “factual and fair” information to readers and acknowledged their responsibility over the situation:

“This newspaper, first and foremost, has a duty to provide news content that is factual and fair. In the publication of this article, we failed that duty and are at fault. It is our responsibility to correct the record to the best of our ability.”

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