*UPDATE* SEJ Award-Winner a Litigant against Industry She Covers

UPDATE (9/6/2012, 12:14pm ET): It seems that the Society of Environmental Journalists caught wind of EID’s coverage about the Denton Record-Chronicle — or, perhaps, just did some research of its own. In any event, an update has been posted about the awards ceremony next month, in which the SEJ Awards Committee acknowledges “the appearance of a conflict of interest” at the Record-Chronicle. The update also notes that the newspaper has declined the award, which we can only speculate was due to the issues surrounding one of its reporters suing the industry that she was tasked with covering objectively.

Original post, July 16, 2012

We’ve pointed out here at EID on several occasions how the press has chosen all too often to cover hydraulic fracturing without a full grounding in the facts. Many times, this is borne not necessarily of a willingness to distort the truth, but simply because explaining complex geological and engineering processes is tough work. Let’s be honest: Can you explain what an annulus is without using Google?

But there are examples – far too many, in fact – where coverage of this important issue cannot be explained in any way other than “agenda-driven.” These examples are especially troubling, not because the reporters have an opinion (don’t we all?), but because it’s clear the reporters’ motivations and opinions are actively preventing them from being objective.

One such is example is at the Denton Record-Chronicle in north Texas, for which reporter Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe covers shale development in the region. The headlines for her columns stories include things like “Lowering the Boom” and “Practice Lays Waste to Land,” and the content for those stories flows seamlessly from there. In one particularly inflammatory piece, she suggested the incidence of breast cancer in the area was related to natural gas development in the Barnett Shale – even though the counties that have the most Barnett Shale activity actually have breast cancer rates well below the national average (independent public health professionals have also confirmed the safety of development in the area). Not exactly a commitment to objectivity, huh?

As it turns out, there’s an inconvenient fact about Ms. Heinkel-Wolfe that is absent from her reports: She’s a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the natural gas industry.

When EID discovered that fact last summer, we contacted the Record-Chronicle and asked how such an egregious conflict of interest could be allowed. Certainly if a reporter on the shale beat was found out to own large shares of stock in a natural gas company, there would be justified outrage at the inability of that reporter to remain objective. Doesn’t the same thing apply if the shoe were on the other foot?

The newspaper’s response: Nope.

The Record-Chronicle said it had already reported on the lawsuit once (a single line buried several paragraphs deep in a lengthy article, mind you), and Ms. Heinkel-Wolfe agreed not to report on the specific companies she was suing. (Of course, if she’s reporting about an entire drilling practice or the industry writ large, then she’s including, by definition, every company in that industry – including the ones against which she is a plaintiff.)

That the referee was also trying to play in the game was damaging enough. But the story actually just got a lot worse.

Not only has the newspaper refused to acknowledge the serious problem with this situation, but the Society of Environmental Journalists recently announced that Ms. Heinkel-Wolfe was actually being rewarded for “outstanding in-depth reporting” for her stories about natural gas development. SEJ said the series “is the result of a strong commitment to quality journalism” – a statement made apparently without irony, either.

Also of note: SEJ suggested the series contributed to a new public disclosure law for the state of Texas. Let’s set aside the fact that deliberations on that law were taking place more than a year before it was enacted – a fact that contradicts SEJ’s interesting timeline of events. But is SEJ really touting the ability of this particular reporter – who refused to adequately disclose vital details about her own background to the general public – to force public disclosure?

SEJ’s “Vision and Mission” page says that the organization’s purpose is to “strengthen the quality, reach and viability of journalism,” all with respect to ensuring that the public is better informed about environmental issues. But how does a conflict of interest “strengthen the quality” of journalism, and what message does it send that SEJ would reward it?

Reporters have difficult jobs, especially those tasked with covering the oil and gas industry. The many processes involved in drilling and completing a well would be difficult for anyone to comprehend, especially journalists who live under tight deadlines and must turn the complex into the simple, often in half as many words as they need.

But reporters also have an obligation to the public, who rely on their stories to become informed citizens, and from which their own opinions can be formed. When bias is injected into a newspaper story, how is the public to know about that bias unless it is clearly stated? And if a reporter has financial interests or existing legal disputes that can be materially impacted by his or her reporting, shouldn’t basic journalistic ethics dictate that the person abstain from covering that subject – or at the very least explain that potential conflict with a disclaimer before every story?

All of this begs an important question: How could a professional organization overlook such a significant issue?

Recall that it was SEJ that sent a letter to a House subcommittee objecting to the arrest of Josh Fox (who had broken committee rules by attempting to film a hearing in February without credentials) on the basis that he is a “journalist” who is merely “informing the public” about hydraulic fracturing. No other organization would consider it proper to award a reporter for covering an issue over which she’s also a litigant. But then again, no other group would seriously suggest that Josh Fox is a journalist – except, apparently, SEJ.

And finally, because we believe in disclosure – of which SEJ is also apparently a big supporter – there’s one other thing worth pointing out: One of the SEJ’s sources of funding is none other than the Park Foundation.


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