Here’s a pretty good piece of advice, delivered Sunday at the New York Times in stern fashion by its public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, who at most papers would be called an ombudsman. The conclusion: If a story says or implies that an undisclosed source is an official or an energy analyst with substantial standing in a federal agency, make sure to also let readers know when the unnamed author is low on the ladder – such as an intern fresh from college.
The story in question has been dragged around and beaten in public already by a few outsiders (previous post) , and a partner piece to this one already received an upbraiding from Brisbane (previous post on that). The focus this time is the second of two stories that ran back to back in June. Written by Ian Urbina, they warned of a possible bubble of over-enthusiasm, coupled with investor risk and general economic shiver, for pumping gas and petroleum from shale with the help of “fracking”: the high pressure fluid injection method technically termed hydrofracturing. It quoted liberally from e-mails collected from the federal Energy Information Administration, a DOE agency.
Brisbane is selective in his critique, noting that the sources of several of the redacted emails the Times team cited received sensible description. But he has other criticisms beyond the intern’s implied high rank. A big one is that the blacked out redactions, which the Times team posted as part of its online info accompanying the story, excluded info that might seem contrary to its theme of a possible investment bubble.
Brisbane’s basic conclusion is that anonymous sourcing asks readers to trust reporters and editors. It is a delicate responsibility. In several ways, the news team failed to give readers information they needed if they were to assess the weight of all the quoted passages. The public editor does not declare the whole package flawed in message, but finds carelessness.
For this package of stories, which presumably traversed several layers of editors, to get two distinctly critical reviews by the paper’s ombudsman is remarkable to say the least.
We’ll see where this goes from here, if anywhere. Ironically, as Brisbane points out, the federal agencies have put on line in public the whole batch of emails, with everybody identified and nothing blacked out. The Times too has now posted them on line. They are extensive. I’ve not read them all, so can’t say much except that most of it seems to reflect a lot of opinions, and to be mostly the email equivalent of chewing the fat over complex and uncertain data.
I’ve argued and still believe the stories were a public service, raising a caution flag over the shale oil and gas boom. Brisbane rightly puts his attention on aspects that, if not central to the theme’s validity, fell short of best conduct. Valid theme or not, that’s a hefty burden to have in one’s personnel file.
By the way: Back in February I posted here on an earlier, long piece by the same reporter and on fracking, chiefly in Pennsylvania. The story appeared fair overall to these eyes, with a major caveat regarding its blind spot to dilution as a potential amelioration of radioactivity and other perils.
– Charlie Petit