Feb
01
2012

Natural Gas and the News

Most messages on fracking ‘brought to you by our sponsors’

Fracking Operation--Photo Credit: Mother Jones/zhuda/Shutterstock

Fracking Operation--Photo Credit: Mother Jones/zhuda/Shutterstock

When it comes to natural gas extraction via “fracking,” TV journalism has some serious competition: energy industry commercials.

Like ads for political candidates that run concurrently with broadcast news coverage of the presidential race, ads promoting natural gas (and other fossil fuels) have long been running in concert with news segments about the topic, most recently touting the prospect of a “boom” made possible by the controversial extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing of the shale sprawling beneath more than 30 U.S. states.

During the past three years, Extra! found, there has been exponentially more propaganda for the wonders of natural gas on our screens each night than theoretically objective news segments about natural-gas extraction.

First, some background: Fracking is a technique for tapping gas lurking in shale deep within the earth by drilling horizontally to reach the deposit, then forcing through a high-pressure mixture of millions of gallons of water plus sand and (often unidentified) chemicals to fracture the rock and release the gas, allowing it to be pumped back up to the surface along with the slurry.

Proponents tout the otherwise inaccessible fuel as a home-grown source of cleaner energy that will bring gushers of money and jobs, while critics and a growing body of evidence have implicated the practice in everything from poisoning groundwater and polluting air to creating earthquakes and fracturing communities—all while remaining exempt from many federal environmental laws.

Fracking came to widespread attention in 2010 via the Academy Award-nominated documentary GasLand, with its unforgettable images of homeowners lighting their tap water on fire. The extraction technique has since been scrutinized in unflattering investigative reports, including ongoing series like the New York Times’ “Drilling Down” (2/11-present) and the nonprofit ProPublica’s “Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat.”

Much is at stake, then, for both industry and ordinary citizens as governments and activists tussle over regulating or even outright banning the process at the state and local levels; a major U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study revisiting fracking’s safety issues is due in 2012. It’s a drama tailor-made for television. But exactly how much information about fracking is coming over the airwaves?

To find out, Extra! used the Vanderbilt Television News Archives and the Nexis news media database to search for news stories and commercials about natural gas extraction on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News Channel during the evening news hours from January 2009 through November 2011. All told, we found only nine stories focused specifically on fracking.

ABC World News had two segments on fracking, CBS Evening News had two, NBC Nightly News had one, CNN had none* and Fox Special Report had four. Over the same period, according to the Vanderbilt Archives, there were a whopping 530 advertisements for “America’s Oil and Gas Industry” or “America’s Natural Gas.” Some 187 of these ads ran on ABC, 149 on CNN, 122 on NBC, and 67 on CBS, and 5 on pro-business Fox News during the evening news hours.

From a duration standpoint, the ratio is less than an hour’s worth of news over nine different nights to nearly four and a half hours’ worth of ads (assuming at least 30 seconds per ad) on 367 different dates. (On some nights, ads ran on multiple channels.)

What about the Sunday talk shows on all five networks (known for their corporate sponsorship and image ads for gas and other industries)? Consulting Nexis, Extra! found zero segments focused on fracking during the years studied on ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, CNN’s Reliable Sources, Fox News Sunday or NBC’s Meet the Press.

Numbers can only tell us so much, so Extra! also looked at the content of stories and ads. News segments about fracking were hooked variously to the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil spill in April 2010, the release of GasLand and the ongoing economic crisis. In one way or another, they addressed a rhetorical question: Is natural gas a better energy choice for America? While that was left unresolved, the overarching (and accurate) message of these reports was that fracking is controversial—and they therefore used the classic environment-versus-economy story frame and “he said, she said” sourcing.

Reporter Anne Thompson in NBC’s “Our Planet” segment (11/18/10) took this evenhandedness to an extreme, portraying the debate thus: “A fight over what some people insist is a terrific source of new jobs and clean energy.... Others say it’s bad for the health of our citizens and doing damage every day to our environment.”

Two of the stories were more unfavorable to fracking, portraying the suffering of Pennsylvanians who said their wells have been contaminated with mystery fracking chemicals.

In ABC’s “Hidden Danger?” (6/13/10), reporter Dan Harris exclaimed: “Critics say the [natural gas] industry exacerbates the problem by refusing to reveal exactly which chemicals they’re using and in what amounts. And listen to the industry’s explanation for this.” Cut to Rayola Dougher of the American Petroleum Institute’s callous explanation: “It would be like Coke giving away their magic formula to Pepsi.”

On CBS (9/4/10), John Hanger from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environ-mental Protection said, “I think industry is close to insane to have allowed that issue to become a source of suspicion,” to which reporter Armen Keteyian replied, “Much like the quality of the air and water now surrounding thousands of homes like this one.”

Six other stories were predominantly favorable to fracking, four of them from Fox News. The Marcellus Shale formation “holds what some call the answer to cleaner energy,” opened one Fox report (1/21/09). Stating that the world’s “No. 1 country for fossil fuel reserves is the U.S.,” Fox (4/20/11) noted that fracking “has lit a fire under local economies.” A hotel in a depressed area is suddenly “fully booked,” and Pennsylvania’s governor predicts natural gas will be a “cornerstone” of the Keystone State’s economy. Even a piece on Fox (6/20/11) about Texas cattle sickened by fracking releases got a positive spin as “an unusual story of government, energy, business, and environmentalists all being on the same page” about the need for industry transparency.

The most recent segments on fracking by CBS (9/15/11) and ABC (10/18/11) were also downright upbeat. Thanks to the shale, Hobson, Texas, “is part of an old-fashioned oil [and gas] boom,” according to CBS correspondent Bigad Shaban. One resident is even “on his way to becoming a millionaire” by leasing his property for energy development.

Steubenville, Ohio, is also a “boomtown,” according to ABC’s Diane Sawyer, with natural gas reserves offering “hope for a new way of life...a new industry rocketing into existence.” Correspondent Cecilia Vega told Sawyer, “I’ve heard this area described as Little Saudi Arabia.”

Still, even in the more favorable stories, the powerful images of frightened, angry people in fracking country linger. On Fox Special Report (4/20/11), a woman named Julie Sautner of rural Pennsylvania (also a source for NBC’s piece—11/18/10) told how her daughter “would get in the shower...and she’d have to get out and lay on the floor because she thought she’s going to pass out because of all the methane in the water.” Sautner told Fox (7/20/11): “I want America to know that yes, natural gas is clean to burn. It’s not clean to extract, and I think we’re living proof of that.” The sad anecdotes contrast poignantly with industry evasions or denials of responsibility.

But these news segments, whether they slant pro or con, are not TV news viewers’ main exposure to information on fracking. The near-nightly play of ads during this period (examples of which can be found on industry websites and on YouTube) promoted a universally positive message, overwhelming any negative news imagery. They tout the same power-and-jobs potential of natural gas as the pro-fracking news sources, bolstering their rah-rah message, neatly tying up all points of controversy.

Consider this typical don’t-worry-be-happy ad from the advocacy and lobbying group America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA):

All energy development comes with some risk. But proven technologies allow natural gas producers to supply affordable, cleaner energy while protecting our environment. Across America, these technologies protect the air, by monitoring air quality and reducing emissions; protect water through conservation and self-contained recycling systems; and protect the land by reducing our footprint and respecting wildlife. America’s natural gas. Domestic, abundant, clean energy to power our lives. That’s smarter power today.

As the voiceover proceeds, images of workers at high-tech consoles and modest, tidy-looking drill rigs alternate with frolicking kids and tranquil nature scenes.

Between the appearance of industry spokespeople and pro-fracking arguments in TV news stories and all the ads, the vast majority of the messages broadcast to the public are skewed in favor of natural gas extraction, regardless of where the truth lies.

This isn’t just a hypothetical problem: Scholarly research shows that advertising and public relations campaigns have a measurable effect on people’s perception of controversial issues. This has been demonstrated, for example, by National Cancer Institute studies (e.g., 6/08) of marketing by the tobacco industry, whose long-successful mission to stub out the connection between cigarettes and cancer in the public mind is now legendary.

The bottom line, though, is that this potentially powerful influence has been bought, not earned. In the current business model, television news programs are “sponsored” by ad dollars. Indeed, these results—a handful of TV news stories on fracking versus hundreds of commercials—tell us less about mainstream news media omissions or commissions and more about the role of money in the debates over energy choices and policy.

Records from the Kantar Media Ad$pender database show that in the period studied, API spent almost $45 million on TV advertising spots; ANGA spent nearly $18 million between January and August 2011 alone (the latest date for which data were available).

Why has the fossil fuel industry decided to advertise so aggressively? It’s part of a larger mobilization to control the messages that reach the public, “thought leaders” and lawmakers. The blitz cranked up in 2009, the same year a bill called the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate. The act, which was reintroduced in 2011, would among other things repeal the oil and gas energy industry’s exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

At that time, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) launched its “Energy in Depth” campaign, one of whose prongs was TV ads and YouTube videos touting oil and gas exploration. And in September 2009, ANGA, which bills itself as a coalition of “independent natural gas exploration and production companies,” rolled out its own $80 million multimedia campaign. According to AdWeek (9/17/09), “In public opinion research conducted earlier this year, ANGA found that natural gas wasn’t well understood by Americans and wasn’t part of the nation’s energy conversation.” So it hired the Grey advertising agency (assisted by public relations mavens Hill & Knowlton and others) to change that. You need only turn on the television to see that both efforts are still ongoing.

And there will be more ads and promotions, if energy companies fulfill their future plans. For two days this past fall, communications pros from the oil and gas industry met in Houston for a conference, “Media & Stakeholder Relations: Hydraulic Fracturing Initiative 2011.” One goal of the confab, subtitled “Working Together as an Industry to Leverage Mass Media, Social Media and Community Support to Overcome Public Concern Over Hydraulic Fracturing,” was to “ensure the sustainability of unconventional oil and gas production and protect the industry from intrusive regulations.” Like the Safe Drinking Water Act, presumably.

For all its efforts to beautify the image of fracking and natural gas in the media, the industry’s uglier side is being unearthed by propaganda watchers, including DeSmog Blog, a nonprofit website that studies tactics used by global-warming deniers to confuse the public about climate science and related issues. For example, DeSmog (2/17/11) reported that Energy in Depth is not, as it originally portrayed itself, a group of small mom-and-pop natural gas companies, but a front group underwritten by oil industry giants such as BP and the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s largest U.S trade association. It also released an embarrassing letter to Energy in Depth boosters thanking the giant companies for their financial support in the fight to “combat new environmental regulations, especially with regard to hydraulic fracturing.”

DeSmog’s deeply researched report, “Fracking the Future” (5/6/11), reveals that many of the same big oil companies, such as Exxon, that funded climate change-denial front groups, studies and media campaigns, have essentially become the fracking industry by steadily buying up natural-gas firms. So it’s not surprising that, as DeSmog executive director/managing editor Brendan DeMelle told Extra!, pro-fracking ad campaigns take a leaf from the global-warming-denial playbook, using mass media to sow doubt about natural gas extraction’s environmental impacts. These messages, which DeMelle dubs “Darth Vader PR,” are “disingenuous, and designed to misinform the public rather than enlighten and engage them,” ensuring that corporations can continue making profits with impunity.

One of the tactics DeSmog has documented in both climate change denial and gas-fracking PR is “claiming the role of the victim.” Industry portrays itself as “being beaten up by a ruthless government and uninformed public that doesn’t understand.” Indeed, a recent API press release (11/7/11) announced the group was launching an ad campaign the following day to discourage lawmakers on the Super Committee from “singl[ing] out” the “job-generating fossil fuel industry for tax increases.” The campaign includes 21 different TV ads, with headlines like “What would new taxes on oil and gas mean to you?” and “Tell Sen. Pat Toomey, keep fighting for Pennsylvania jobs and against job-destroying energy taxes.”

At press time, neither ANGA nor Energy in Depth funder API had responded to Extra!’s request for information or comment about their advertising campaigns.

Lately, some industry groups are even using news media reports to bolster their PR: The website of Energy in Depth (which describes the group’s function as “research, education and public outreach”) features several network news segments, including a daytime debate from CNN (6/18/11) between GasLand filmmaker Josh Fox and Energy in Depth spokesman Chris Tucker. The site also spotlights a Fox Business News item (6/10/11) questioning the claims made in the film.

To DeMelle, all these tactics smell of desperation. Growing public disdain has put the natural gas industry “in a rough spot, and they know it.”

Fracking does face an uphill battle. New research (Greenwire, 4/11/11) suggests the greenhouse-gas emissions from allegedly “cleaner” fracked natural gas are even worse than those of “dirty” coal. And laws are tightening; in December 2011, Colorado “adopted the nation’s toughest rule requiring oil and gas drillers to disclose all the chemicals used in fracking fluids they pump down wells,” a move its governor says is likely to become a model for other states (Denver Post, 12/13/11).

Moreover, even while national media neglect the issue, local media in shale-rich states like Pennsylvania are providing regular reporting on fracking’s troubling impacts and public opposition. And the “green” press—including the November/December 2011 cover package of E magazine—has been following fracking closely all along. Extra! readers are urged to read these stories and weigh them against industry spin the next time yet another “clean natural gas” commercial pops up on their TVs.

* CNN did have nine segments on fracking during this time frame—all shown during the day, five of them on the same day (9/13/10). They were both more balanced than the night segments and probed the topic a bit more deeply. The additional coverage—plus a morning news item from CBS’s Early Show (11/2/11) and a segment on ABC’s evening show Nightline (4/21/11)—added a bit more TV news to the fracking picture during the three-year time frame. But not much: Assuming a generous five minutes per story, it’s just under an hour’s worth.

Freelance journalist Miranda C. Spencer is a longtime contributor to Extra!. She is a researcher for Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit news organization.