NYT Editor on Shale Gas Skeptic Article: We Should Have Done Better

Michael Giberson

As mentioned here a few weeks ago, links below, the pair of New York Times articles giving voice to shale gas skeptics were badly done. (I called them no more than “an impressive collection of shale skeptic sound bites.”) I was far from the only critic, and the paper itself received a lot of complaints. The Times‘s reader ombudsman investigated and has published an assessment: “Clashing Views on the Future of Natural Gas.”

The report included a somewhat amusing interchange between the ombudsman, the reporter and the editor for the story (links are in the original, bolding added for emphasis):

I also asked why The Times didn’t include input from the energy giants, like Exxon Mobil,that have invested billions in natural gas recently. If shale gas is a Ponzi scheme, I wondered, why would the nation’s energy leader jump in?

Mr. Urbina and Adam Bryant, a deputy national editor, said the focus was not on the major companies but on the “independents” that focus on shale gas, because these firms have been the most vocal boosters of shale gas, have benefited most from federal rules changes regarding reserves and are most vulnerable to sharp financial swings. The independents, in industry parlance, are a diverse group that are smaller than major companies like Exxon Mobil and don’t operate major-brand gas stations.

This was lost on many readers, including meMichael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that the article “repeatedly confuses the fortunes of various risk-hungry independents with the fortunes of the industry as a whole.”

He told me he hadn’t realized that the report was focused on independents and read it more broadly, adding, “If I didn’t know they were talking about certain independents, then Times readers — who don’t know what an independent is — they aren’t going to know what they are talking about either.”

This confusion stems from the language in the article, which near the top referred to “natural gas companies” and “energy companies.” The term “independent” appeared only once, inside a quoted e-mail.


The stories: “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush,” the focus of the discussion above, and from the next day, “Behind Veneer, Doubt on Future of Natural Gas.”

Notable among objectors to the NYT’s articles was the panel that put together the MIT study on The Future of Natural Gas, released about two weeks before the newspaper stories.

The Council on Foreign Relation’s Michael Levi, quoted in the excerpt above, has an article in The New Republic on the natural gas fracking industry’s public perception problems.

My posts in response to the articles, which include links to some of the other reactions:


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