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CPBJ Blog Extras

Dueling videos — Part 4

By - Last modified: April 2, 2013 at 9:20 AM

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Tim Stuhldreher

Welcome to the fourth and final “dueling videos” blog post.

First of all, if you're coming in late, the first three posts can be found here, here and here.

Now, on with the blog.

I started writing this series because Josh Fox made a point in "The Sky Is Pink" that hit me, as a journalist, very hard.

Basically, he said it's easy to make journalists into propaganda patsies.

When industries need to stymie public policy, he said, they wage disinformation campaigns. They find experts and conduct studies purporting to show, for example, that cigarettes don't cause cancer.

The experts don't have to carry the day, he said. They just have to create a sense that there's a controversy. Maybe cigarettes cause cancer, maybe they don't. That's enough to stall public outcry, marginalize opposition and delay a solution.

Journalists abet this process, Fox said, by hewing to the norms of "he said, she said" reporting. We interview the experts served up by both sides, report what they say and figure we've done our job. That plays right into the hands of well-funded schemers and cranks.

The criticism stings, and as it happens, I agree with it. A lot of damage has been done over the years by "shape of earth differs" journalism. WMDs in Iraq? Intelligent design as valid science? Global warming? Or, if those examples are too politically correct for your liking, how about the decades of earnest left-wing reporting on the splendors of the Cuban and Soviet political systems?

So, is the debate over natural-gas drilling real or manufactured? I figured the obvious way to answer that question was to find a nonpartisan expert. A couple of calls yielded a promising candidate: Dennis Risser, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Pennsylvania Water Science Center. I called him, and we had a very nice chat. But a somewhat discouraging one.

Risser confirmed the general points made by the Marcellus Shale Coalition's video "Methane: A Natural Element": that methane exists in rock naturally and can migrate naturally or via water wells. But he deferred questions about methane migration caused by deep-well drilling to Fred Baldassare, the researcher and former Department of Environmental Protection stray-gas investigator who appears in the video.

In a followup conversation with Risser yesterday, I asked him straight out: "Where do you stand on these issues?"

"I'm not studying the questions that you're asking, so I'm really not authoritative," he said.

Most of what he knows, he said, he gets second-hand — from news reports, DEP press releases and from research like Baldassare's.

In one respect, Risser's reticence is admirable. Say only what you know — imagine how quiet the world would be if more people followed that rule! But in another respect, it floors me. If a guy like Dennis Risser doesn't feel qualified to comment on this controversy without examining the data first-hand, where does that leave a mere journalist?

It leaves us a lot closer to Josh Fox's despised "he said, she said" journalism than I would like, that's for sure.

Fortunately, Risser's suggestion that I go straight to Baldassare worked out well, as Baldassare proved to be more candid than I expected. He strikes me as a guy who hews to the data, not a party line, and I can't commend him enough for that.

So for now, at least, my opinion on the methane migraton question is Fred Baldassare's opinion. It will remain so, pending further evidence.

I look forward to seeing more research, from Baldassare and others. USGS researchers have proposed a study of baseline water quality in the Appalachian basin, but it hasn't been funded, Risser said.

Even in the world of sequestration, that strikes me as a few million dollars that would be very well spent.

Tim Stuhldreher covers banking, finance, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at tims@centralpennbusiness.com. You can also follow him on Twitter, @timstuhldreher.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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