STATS: The Media’s Gas Problem
What people often don’t realize is that the media framing of scientific studies incorporates the journalist’s own perspective, whether the journalist realizes it or not. A dramatic example is the recent appearance of dueling studies on fracking that provide a natural experiment on media sensationalism.
Natural gas has long been seen as a relatively clean source of electricity and a means of reducing the contribution fossil fuels make to global warming. Technological developments such as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” have recently expanded our access to deposits of gas from sources like the massive Marcellus Shale formation, which runs through parts of the Northeast and North-central regions of the U.S.
Even as state officials debate the use of this technology on a large scale, however, some environmental groups have raised concerns over the environmental impact of this procedure. As a result, the notion that natural gas represents a “greener” alternative to coal is increasingly being contested in the realms of science, public policy, and the media.
This debate has heightened media interest in any new scientific study that addresses the effects of fracking and the environmental and health consequences of natural gas. Unfortunately, the media have a long history of misunderstanding environmental and health risk assessment, sometimes resorting to sensationalism that overstates potential dangers. This includes giving more attention to studies that find a risk than studies that do not. For example, a George Mason University survey found that 97 percent of toxicologists believe the media can’t distinguish well-done studies from poor ones.
Thus, the recent appearance of two scientific studies that bear directly on fracking provide a kind of natural experiment on media sensationalism. Study One was critical of natural gas development; Study Two was supportive. How much coverage did each get in the mainstream media? The score: Study One – 24 big-city newspaper articles and an NPR appearance; Study Two – two newspaper articles, one of them in a story primarily about Study One.
The first study, by a team of Cornell University researchers led by biologist Robert Howarth, appeared in April 2011 as a letter to the scholarly journal Climatic Change titled, “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations.” The authors concluded that methane emissions from shale produced by the fracking process contributed as much as – or even more than – coal-fired electricity to climate change.
The second study, by a team of environmental engineering researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, was titled “Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus Shale gas.” It appeared in the July-September 2011 issue of Environmental Research Letters, a scholarly journal published by the Institute of Physics in the United Kingdom. The authors concluded that using shale gas instead of coal to generate electricity would significantly reduce greenhouse emissions
The Howarth et al. article (hereafter referred to as the Cornell study, as most news accounts did) was picked up by such mainstream media heavyweights as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, and National Public Radio, along with other big city dailies like Newsday, the New York Daily News, Houston Chronicle, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Overall, a Lexis-Nexis search uncovered 24 newspaper articles dealing with the study, including four op-ed columns and an unsigned editorial, along with an interview with lead author Howarth on NPR’s flagship program “All Things Considered.”
The coverage was heaviest in newspapers based in New York and Pennsylvania, where the proximity of the Marcellus Shale formation has produced ongoing public policy debates over the use of fracking. Most of the articles appeared in April, after media organizations received an advance copy of the Cornell study shortly before it was published. The study continued to receive occasional coverage over the months that followed. It was usually cited as an important piece of evidence in stories on the debate over the environmental effects of fracking…