SEJ Rewards Conflicts of Interest in Anti-Fracking Echo Chamber

It’s difficult to believe that a report on fracking in the Eagle Ford Shale, which has been thoroughly discredited due to highly questionable reporting tactics and major conflicts of interest, has been given an award for journalistic excellence.  But the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) announced this week that the series “Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil, Bad Air” by InsideClimate News (ICN), the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), and the Weather Channel, has won “top honors.”

EID has extensively detailed ICN’s journalistic flaws, including its team’s refusal to identify themselves adequately to the people they interviewed.  That goes against the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics, which states a journalist should “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.” ICN’s reporting has also suffered from major factual errors, ranging to the regulatory regime that covers oil and gas to basic economic realities of energy markets.

It’s also important to note that ICN is funded by deep-pocketed special interests who aggressively advocate against fracking, even as the website’s “reporters” attempt to pass their stories off as objective reporting.

One of those funding sources is the Park Foundation, whose president Adelaide Gomer said  in 2011, “In our work to oppose fracking, the Park Foundation has simply helped to fuel an army of courageous individuals and NGOs.” Both ICN and CPI are funded by the Park Foundation.

EID isn’t the only organization to find fault with ICN’s reporting.  Jon Entine of Philanthropy Roundtable discussed the tightly woven web of activism between ICN and anti-fracking groups:

“Park-supported groups like the NRDC weigh in on many Park-supported projects. In February of this year, the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News (ICN) teamed up with the Weather Channel to produce a series of reports on the Texan Eagle Ford shale formation.

‘Their reporting now shows clearly that Texans in the area of Eagle Ford are having trouble breathing, and regulators are having trouble noticing,’ said NRDC attorney Kate Sinding.

‘People who suffer the effects of oil and gas emissions have few places to turn for help other than to the politicians and regulatory agencies that are often cheerleaders for, and financially beholden to, the industry,’ said one ICN story.

The series was supported by a $25,000 Park grant ‘to report and publish articles on…air and water pollution related to hydraulic fracturing.’ Many of the sources in the series, as well as the outlets promoting it (the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthworks, Public Citizen, the NDRC) also received Park funding.” (emphasis added)

An extensive investigation by the conservative Washington Free Beacon noted that the ICN series “featured quotes from environmentalist groups opposed to fracking such as the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthworks, and Public Citizen,” and that these groups “are financed by the same environmentalist foundations that support ICN.” Neither ICN nor CPI disclosed in their report that they share funding sources with the activist groups they were citing.  One of SEJ’s major donors is also the Park Foundation.

This isn’t the first time SEJ has tried to reward conflicts of interest on the subject of fracking.  In 2012, the group recognized Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe, a reporter from the Denton Record-Chronicle, for “outstanding in-depth reporting” for her stories on fracking in North Texas. But the Record-Chronicle had systematically failed to disclose in those stories that Ms. Heinkel-Wolfe was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against several natural gas companies.  Despite assurances from the newspaper’s editor to the contrary, Heinkel-Wolfe’s stories included harsh coverage of companies that her lawsuit was targeting. In one notable piece, Heinkel-Wolfe suggested breast cancer  was related to natural gas development in the Barnett Shale – even though the counties that have the most Barnett Shale activity actually had breast cancer rates well below the national average.

After EID exposed this clear failure of disclosure, SEJ posted an update to their awards page, acknowledging “the appearance of a conflict of interest” at the Record-Chronicle.  The newspaper later declined to accept the award.

By rewarding InsideClimate News, SEJ is demonstrating how at least one facet of the anti-fracking echo chamber works: Foundations fund not only the activist groups to malign fracking, but also the “news” outlets to report on the groups’ activities and the organizations that presumably ascribe credibility to those outlets’ reporting.

Indeed, sharing resources and close coordination has become a key component of anti-fracking advocacy. Anti-fracking activists also authored and peer-reviewed some of the key health reports used by New York as justification for banning fracking, as EID explained in a recent whitepaper.

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