Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Media, The CMU Study, & The Marcellus

In reaction to my posting yesterday about the CMU life cycle gas study hiding in plain sight since August 5th, when it was published, Andy Leahy says in the Comment section:

"Nice scoop, John. Remarkable to me, the delayed, low-key rollout on the CMU paper, compared to the media tsunami which carried the Cornell paper.  Are the anti-drillers more polished in the PR department?"

This is a meaty, great comment in a few words.

The Howarth/Cornell study did get a media tsunami response, and Cornell said at one point no study in the history of that great university had ever generated more media coverage.

Why?  Impressive credentials go a long way.  And even more important is the message. Professor Howarth had credentials and had a shocking message, a bad news message, a message that built on the narrative constructed by the NYT gas reporter and Gasland that shale drilling or "fracking" is the vey worst environmental threat.  Howarth said that gas is as dirty or possibly dirtier than coal (he was talking about just one pollutant--carbon--but that got lost too). 

Bad, shocking, outrageous sells.  Good news rarely does.  Why? Readers and listeners respond to the outrageous.  No matter if it is false or wrong.  Smears work. It is the marketplace in which reporters work.

Add the reality of some real bias against the gas industry in a few reporters (the NYT gas reporter is the most prominent example) to Howarth's impressive credentials and the shocking but false message that gas is dirtier than coal creates the media tsunami that Andy mentions.

Howarth is a member of the academy from a great university. One had to be an expert in the field to say that this struting academic emperor wore no clothes and most of the coverage had little to warn the reader that the study was junk.  And the body of the piece is never as powerful as the headline or the lead and the lead was some version of gas is as dirty as coal. 

Many in the media also treated  Howarth as an objective researcher doing disinterested scientific research.  He is an anti-fracking activist who wears anti-fracking pins and so on. He wants in particular to keep drilling out of his home area and all that is perfectly fine but his agenda was not made clear.   He is doing work and using the credibility of his employer to create weapons for his cause which is to ban shale gas hydraulic fracturing.

And then there is the careful work of the 6 CMU researchers that hides in plain view for 12 days before I did a posting.  Why?

In part, the message confirmed that coal is much dirtier than gas. Not an outrageous, shocking conclusion.  The researchers were not adding another allegation to the indictment against gas drilling so the NYT gas reporter and the narrative he has constructed was not served by this piece. 

Unlike the Duke University researchers that did a major roll out of the Duke gas migration study, CMU and the researchers apparently did little of the normal press work needed to gain media attention.  You cannot blame the media for not covering something if there is no reason for them to know about it.

But to answer the question posed by Andy Leahy, part of the explanation is also that those fighting gas drilling are more effective than the industry in messaging. 

My concern is not to score the fight like a boxing match but to try and make sure the discussion focuses on the real issues like a reasonable tax, gas migration and air emissions, while not falling prey to nonsense like the Howarth study

Thank you to the 6 researchers at CMU.  Hopefully as many people will learn about their careful research as heard about Howarth's junk. Reporting is a tough, vital job. Great reporters are invaluable members of society. Truth depends on them and their work.

1 comment:

  1. Concerned ScientistAugust 18, 2011 at 9:35 AM

    I don't think this is necessarily a matter of one side doing better PR than the other. The anti-shale gas story fits much better with a narrative that has been a proven winner:

    It has:
    Bad guys - the heartless oil and gas companies who will do anything for money including kill!

    Innocent victims - regular folks who are just living a simple life in the country until the bad guys come and destroy their land (and it could be you!)

    Complicit government officials - the regulatory agencies who look the other way or make it easy for the bad guys to take advantage of the innocent victims for political power, campaign contributions or to build fifedoms

    Bungling Scientists - Always disagreeing with each other except for the very few who aren't afraid to tell the truth (like Howarth!)

    Loving activists who only care about protecting the innocent - and are willing to risk everything to stop the madness

    Fearless reporters - who only want the truth!

    Send this one to Hollywood!

    The other side does not fit the Hollywood script

    Providers of needed, cleaner energy - oil and gas companies who are all seeking profits, who mainly follow the rules but do have accidents and people working for them who cut corners here and there. None of them wants to kill anyone or contaminate anyone's water, even if only because its bad for business

    Landowners - who deal with drilling and some of its problems but who also reap large profits and can now afford to keep their farms and maybe send their children to college or get that shiftless son-in-law a job

    Government officials - who see a need for energy and jobs (here in the real world) and who are mainly trying to protect the environment (with occasional human errors)

    Scientists with differing agendas - most scientists are interested in the truth, but politics and personal preferences can sway interpretations especially if it is not their area of expertise (like Howarth!)

    Activists ranging from sincere to cynical - some of these groups see this as a cash cow while others are sincerely swayed by the Hollywood version above

    Reporters who want a story that sells papers - the Hollywood version above is a proven winner while the nuance of the actual story is a real snoozer