While I was vacationing in New Mexico and Arizona, New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane continued his analysis of the pair of late June articles in the newspaper that suggested widespread insider skepticism over the size and significance of recent shale gas developments. A June 26 story suggested the presence of significant skepticism within the gas industry and a June 27 story suggested an active internal debate among officials at the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Both stories relied heavily on highly-selective anonymous comments taken from emails that had names and much other identifying information redacted. Both stories have been discredited by subsequent revelations.
Brisbane’s article on the June 27 story begins with a disclosure by the EIA that the emails quoted in the story were “largely to and from a person who was hired by E.I.A. in 2009 as an intern and later developed into an entry-level position.” Nowhere in the June 27 story does it mention that some of the quotes presented as examples of EIA skepticism were by an intern or newly-hired college graduate. Instead, in the article the intern/entry-level employee was referred to variously as “one official” at the EIA, as an “energy analyst,” and finally as “one federal analyst.” Brisbane finds the presentation to be sloppy and misleading.
If the emails to and from the intern/new employee are eliminated, what remains in the story is some concern over the lack of independent EIA expertise on some petroleum geology topics and some probably healthy skepticism of early industry claims of a vast and newly-accessible gas resource.
In my view, by using multiple descriptors to mask the identity of a single emailer, then redacting any mention of internship or entry-level employment status in the original supporting documents presented with the story, the reporter of the June 27 article intentionally sought to mislead Times readers concerning the nature of internal debate at the EIA. It is just more dishonest journalism by reporter Ian Urbina. (Brisbane somewhat-more-mildly concluded that the story exhibited “some of the classic problems associated with anonymous sourcing” in journalism.)
The Times posted the unredacted emails, once they had been released publicly by the EIA, so readers are now in a better position to judge for themselves whether or not the emails constitute serious internal dissension at the agency.
Gas-industry website Energy In Depth – which has been quite critical of the Times natural gas reporting – seized upon the revelations with unsurprising glee. Their commentary noted that a key EIA official cited in the June 27 story was just an intern, and then drills deeper into the unredacted email to discover that the intern exchanged a number of emails on shale with the Natural Resources Defense Council and attempted to feature the NRDC’s shale gas criticisms on an EIA website on shale gas.