Indeed, in the first article of the series, Urbina provided links to a study from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, suggesting the dilution is sufficient, and one for the American Petroleum Institute, suggesting it isn’t—but he doesn’t attempt to resolve the two, leaving the reader with little more than a he-said-she-said debate. Petit argued that with data about river flow rates readily available, Urbina should have crunched the numbers and been more conclusive.
There is also an odd contradiction between the AP’s January article about wastewater and the first article in the Times series. The former reported that “treatment plant operators” say their facilities can remove most toxic pollutants without much trouble, including radioactive elements, but that removing dissolved solids (salts, etc.) is more difficult. In the Times, however, “treatment plant operators” say their facilities aren’t equipped to remove radioactive material (the story didn’t mention dissolved solids). Thus, there seems to be some need for clarification of what these plants can and cannot effectively treat. Regardless, it’s nice to see major outlets like the Times, the AP, and ProPublica all digging into the drilling story with such gusto.
Elsewhere, the reaction to coverage has been equally “frack”-tious (pun intended). On Saturday, bloggers chastised The Wall Street Journal for removing an unusual quote from an article about the gas industry’s displeasure that the film Gasland, which criticized the destructive nature of drilling, had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (it failed to win the Oscar on Sunday night). The original version of the article quoted a spokesman for Range Resources-Appalachia, a natural gas company, saying, “We have to stop blaming documentaries [for public concerns about drilling] and take a look in the mirror.” The quote quickly disappeared, however, although Josh Fox, Gasland’s director, posted a screenshot of the comment on the film’s Facebook page.
The online news site Press Action contacted the Journal article’s author, Ben Casselman, on February 26 to ask about the deletion:
In an e-mail response, Casselman wrote: “As a matter of policy, the Journal doesn’t discuss its editorial decisions, so I can’t get into details. But stories are edited all the time between editions, for all sorts of reasons (space, clarity, etc.). So it’s not unusual for the early versions of a story to look different from the final version.”
Casselman is right, of course. Articles can pass through multiple iterations online, which are often quite different from one another. But that doesn’t answer the entirely valid question about why the Journal nixed the quote from Range Resource’s spokesman.
Whatever the case, the incident is further evidence that coverage of the natural gas boom and hydraulic fracturing is taking place within a fraught environment—one in which reporters must think carefully about the facts and the tone presented in their articles, and be prepared to explain or defend them.