NY Times Ombudsman Critical of Shale Gas 'Bubble' Stories

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NY Times building photoOn July 7, we asked New York Times ombudsman Arthur Brisbane to look at the newspaper's front-page series on natural gas by reporter Ian Urbina, who alleged that the sector is in the grips of a speculative bubble. We specified a number of apparent ethical problems with Urbina's methods and sources.

In Sunday's paper, Brisbane addressed the central concern raised by us and many others - that Urbina ignored the fact that production of natural gas from domestic shale deposits is booming. Brisbane wrote:

My view is that such a pointed article needed more convincing substantiation, more space for a reasoned explanation of the other side and more clarity about its focus.

Unfortunately, Urbina's editor continued to defend the story:

"The article challenges conventional wisdom and a powerful industry, so we expected criticism," said Richard L. Berke, the national editor. "But it is deeply sourced, meticulously reported and measured, and we would not change a word."

Brisbane wasn't convinced. He concluded:

No question, the article challenged conventional thinking, and perhaps some of the shale gas independents will eventually founder. But the article went out on a limb, lacked an in-depth dissenting view in the text and should have made clear that shale gas had boomed.

We also made a specific complaint about the use of emails with the names of the parties redacted that we believe were to and from a shale gas critic named Art Berman. In our July 7 letter, I wrote:

I am troubled that The New York Times would obscure the fact that Mr. Berman is apparently the author or recipient of many of the emails cited as the basis for Mr. Urbina's story. As I understand the proper practice of journalism, withholding information from readers about sources is only appropriate on rare occasions when someone could be in danger or face serious retaliation. But Arthur Berman is already out in the open as a shale gas critic.

Moreover, since Mr. Berman is named in the Urbina articles and even quoted, he cannot be considered to be a confidential source. Obscuring his name on the emails seems like it was simply a way to mislead readers about the degree to which people believe there is "a shale gas bubble.

Brisbane touched on the emails but really didn't address out point that Urbina may have purposely sought to mislead readers:

The article's sourcing has also been questioned. The Times presented a large array of e-mails - some recent, some three and four years old - from geologists, analysts, energy executives and others who expressed the belief that companies were exaggerating their prospects. The Times excised the names but not the company affiliations from the e-mails. It was from this trove, which became part of a 487-page online document collection for readers to peruse, that the hot-button references to dot-coms, Ponzi schemes and Enron were pulled for the text of the article.

The two named sources in the story, Art Berman, a geologist from Houston, and Deborah Rogers, a farm owner from Fort Worth, say they provided some of these e-mail conversations.

Mr. Berman, who was described appropriately as "one of the most vocal skeptics of shale gas economics," told me he had traveled the country giving presentations questioning some companies' claims for shale gas prospects. It's clear that some of the e-mails in The Times article came from people who had heard him speak.

One dimension of this controversy not explored by Brisbane (nor by us in our letter) is the motivation for Urbina's distortions. Could it be that Urbina and Berke were influenced by "green" activists with a political agenda to stop what's called "fracking," a technique increasingly used to tap gas reserves? When it is the New York Times, questions about ideological bias cannot be far from the surface.

Related:

NY Times Asked to Investigate Shale Gas 'Bubble' Series