Fairness in the coverage of an ongoing story: how to handle fracking

The complainant thought CBC News in New Brunswick had done an inadequate job covering the complex issues around the province’s decision to allow exploration of shale gas. He thought News had failed to pay enough attention to opponents and did not challenge government statements enough. I found the coverage extensive, and over a period of at least two years it has adequately addressed the issues and presented a reasonable range of views.

COMPLAINT

While you felt that CBC News in New Brunswick has done some good work on the question of shale gas exploration in the province, notably in its 2011 series “Fractured Future”, you were concerned the coverage over the last year was inadequate and was in violation of CBC journalistic policy. The process of hydraulic fracturing, often referred to as fracking, enables the recovery of natural gas and oil embedded in shale that until recently would have been inaccessible. It is believed that New Brunswick is sitting on large reserves, and the province has developed guidelines and oversight processes to allow exploration.

Hydraulic fracturing is controversial, and there has been considerable opposition to opening the province’s reserves for development. Opponents of this extraction method are concerned about contamination of water sources, the quantity of water required, seismic events, air quality and other potential harmful side effects. Proponents say that with proper safeguards, the gas can be tapped safely, and that the economic potential is important to New Brunswick.

In the last year, there have been two reports about the shale gas industry submitted to the government. One was done by the provincial chief medical officer of health, Dr. Eilish Cleary. It dealt with health concerns around shale gas development. The other was commissioned by the provincial government to get public feedback on the proposed regulations for the shale gas industry. That study was compiled and written by Dr. Louis LaPierre, a professor emeritus in biology at Université de Moncton, with a background in oversight on issues of environmental impact.

On November 28, 2012, the Energy Minister for the province, Craig Leonard, spoke in the Legislature in response to the recommendations of both these reports.It was the first time the government responded publicly. CBC News in New Brunswick covered the speech, mentioning that the Minister rejected a moratorium on exploration, citing the reports as evidence that there was no need to impose one. The cbcnews.ca report quoted him as saying:

“‘Both reports came to the same conclusion — a moratorium on shale gas exploration was neither required nor desirable in New Brunswick as it would effectively limit the research and exploration required to learn more about the potential of the industry,’ Leonard said.”

You strongly objected to CBC using this quote without challenging it or pointing out that it was not true. You said that Dr. Cleary did not even mention the word moratorium and that Dr. LaPierre’s conclusions are not based on the facts of his report and represent his own opinion:

“As it happens, this claim, which is a center piece in the government’s rationale to move ahead with shale gas, is fraudulent. Dr. Cleary’s report does not even contain the word ‘moratorium’, and Mr. Leonard was obviously aware of this. When asked about Mr .Leonard’s statement, Dr. Cleary has replied that ‘any inferred comment on a moratorium was not the intention or the point of my report’. There are also issues with the other report.

Dr. LaPierre’s report does indeed contain comments dismissing a moratorium in its conclusion section. However, these comments are nor supported by, and do not follow from, the content of the preceding sections of his report, which was commissioned to gather feedback from the public on proposed shale gas regulatory changes. Therefore, these comments cannot be seen as a conclusion of the report, as a CBC’s headline and Mr. Leonard’s statement suggest, but rather as Dr. LaPierre’s personal opinion. The inaccuracy of CBC’s headline is worsened by the easily verifiable fact that Dr. LaPierre’s comments on a moratorium are based on fallacious arguments, such as that a moratorium is incompatible with a science-based approach and would leave the issues undefined.”

You also objected to the original coverage of LaPierre’s report for the same reason. You think the use of the headline “Shale Gas report rules out moratorium” was inappropriate because Dr. LaPierre is wrong in his reasoning. You also thought that the fact that Dr. LaPierre is on the Board of NB Power should have been mentioned because it puts him in a conflict of interest.

You felt overall there is a lack of balance in coverage. You think opponents of hydraulic fracturing are not receiving adequate attention, and that their views and concerns are not being adequately reflected. You were particularly concerned that there was no coverage of an open letter by an alliance of opponents of shale gas development sent to the energy minister in response to his proposed rules for the oil and gas industry in February of this year.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Senior Managing Director for Atlantic Canada, Andrew Cochran, replied to your concerns. He did not think you were correct to say that CBC News was remiss to report the Minister’s statement that “both reports came to the same conclusion – a moratorium on shale gas was neither required or desirable.” Mr. Cochran explained: “Those are Mr. Leonard’s words and, presumably, reflect his understanding of the reports’ conclusions.” He also pointed out that the inference, whether you agree or not, is plausible in the case of Dr. Cleary’s report:

“Her 82-page report recommends ongoing monitoring emphasizing many areas of concern where it says a lack of information and research makes it difficult to reach an informed assessment. It says there are ‘social and community health risks’ and urges the collection of more data and the preparation and development of effective plans. It also makes numerous recommendations, including a health impact assessment and monitoring the health of the population ‘to reduce the risk of spoiling the potential benefits from economic gains’.

In a ‘Message…’ preceding the body of her report, Dr. Cleary said she was ‘providing these recommendations to our government to offer advice on measures that should be put in place to maximize the health benefits and minimize the health risks of shale gas development if the decision is taken to go ahead with it’. Dr. Cleary did not recommend that there should be a moratorium on that development.

Mr. Leonard’s statement – that her report concluded ‘a moratorium on shale gas exploration was neither required nor desirable’ – is an interpretation based on the fact that she did not address the issue. Had she felt a moratorium was required or desirable, he might argue, the report was the place to say so. That is Mr. Leonard’s view, of course, one with which I understand you clearly do not agree, but I do not think it rises to the level of fraud or falsehood.”

He also noted that CBC news had covered the report when it was released, providing a range of views.

In reference to Dr. LaPierre, he pointed out that the report specifically does reject a moratorium, and both Mr. Leonard’s statement in the Legislature, and the headline you objected to, are an accurate reflection of that fact.

He also felt that Dr. LaPierre’s position on the Board of Directors of NB Power did not put him in conflict and that he was well qualified to produce the report:

“Prof. LaPierre is a highly regarded academic and environmentalist. He taught Wildlife and Environmental Ecology at the Université de Moncton for almost 30 years. For many years he was the holder of the K.C. Irving Chair in Sustainable Development. For decades he has been an active member of environment groups in the province and across the country. Last year he was appointed a member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to the preservation of the natural environment at local, provincial and national levels.

Prof. LaPierre also sits on the Board of Directors of NB Power, a power generation company wholly owned by the New Brunswick government.

In 2012 he was hired by the New Brunswick government to solicit feedback on the government’s proposed regulations for the shale gas industry, regulations which he explained at the beginning of The Path Forward, ‘are critically important to building confidence among the public that government is committed to developing the industry on a safe and sustainable basis’. He wrote that his report proposes what he feels is a ‘sustainable path forward, if this industry [is] to exist in any form in New Brunswick’…Serving on NB Power’s board of directors may have made him more aware of the potential benefits of conversion of the plants to natural gas, but it does not, in any normal understanding of the word, represent a conflicting interest.”

Mr. Cochran also rejected the notion that failure to cover the release of an open letter from shale gas opponents revealed bias. He pointed out that CBC News has “consistently covered the views of those who oppose shale gas development.” And he added that while stories frequently refer to concerns about water quality, the body of work reflects the wide range of issues and concerns around hydraulic fracturing.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices are underpinned by a set of values that call for accuracy, fairness and balance. The value of accuracy speaks of “seeking out the truth in matters of public interest,” using skills to develop knowledge to try to help the audience understand the facts. Whose truth, you may ask. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their book The Elements of Journalism, provide a working definition of truth and accuracy: “It is more helpful, and more realistic, to understand journalistic truth as a process-or as a continuing journey toward understanding- that begins with the first story and builds over time.” With each iteration, a bigger picture emerges. These are the standards by which this work should be judged.

The story you objected to was built around a speech in the Legislature. Here is what the Minister said about moratoria:

Both reports came to the same conclusion — a moratorium on shale gas exploration was neither required nor desirable in New Brunswick as it would effectively limit the research and exploration required to learn more about the potential of the industry.”

You agree that the LaPierre report rejected a moratorium but you asserted that based on your analysis of the material in the report, he should not have because that did not accurately reflect the public feedback he received. You thought CBC News should not have reported the statement without challenge. Leaving aside the accuracy of your interpretation, the issue raises questions about what can reasonably be expected from an individual news story. I also note the report is divided in two sections: the first captures the concerns of citizens. The second is entitled, as is the entire report, “The Path Forward,” which provides recommendations about how the government might proceed, based on economic need and legitimate concerns about environment and long term impacts. His recommendation on a moratorium does not refer to or rely upon the input from the public hearings. Dr. LaPierre says in the introduction to the second section:

“Given the importance of resource development to New Brunswick I have taken the opportunity to develop a possible path forward for our province when it comes to responsible exploration for gas and oil. I feel compelled to attempt to provide some additional options by which we can assess the positive and negative impacts associated with the development of a shale gas industry. I believe a new, richer model is called for to bring citizens together. The government should change its current course to create a stronger, more focused program designed to determine if, in fact, this industry can be a net benefit to our province.”

No one news story is meant to be definitive. That is why CBC policy calls for balance over a reasonable period of time. The story you objected to was built around a speech in the Legislature. The minister made his statement. The story mentions there are those who believe the industry should be banned, mentions there were groups on either side of the issue demonstrating that day and, more importantly, provides some context about the minister’s statement: that this is a step along the way to the creation of a blueprint for the industry.

His recommendation on a moratorium does not reference the input from the public hearings.

As for the Cleary study, it is silent on the subject of a moratorium but makes other recommendations. Mr. Cochran points out that presumably if Dr. Cleary had thought a moratorium was the way to go, she would have suggested it. But whether that reading is any more correct than yours, in this context, it does not detract from the basic accuracy of a story which was about the Minister’s speech. It is not the only coverage of the issues behind shale gas development or of the two reports. It is not reasonable to expect an indepth analysis of the reports, including debates about its meaning or accuracy in the context of a news story about the government announcement in the legislature. It does provide some useful context to the issues, as well as many links to previous coverage and to the reports themselves. When both reports were released, CBC news staff sought reaction from a variety of perspectives. In doing so, they fulfilled CBC policy requirements.

You impugn the reputation of Dr. LaPierre by saying he stood to personally gain because one of his recommendations was to create an independent Energy Institute, which the government has subsequently adopted and named him as head. The creation came after the fact, and it seems a stretch to see this, among the many recommendations, as self-serving. At the time the stories were done, it’s pretty obvious that CBC, and likely Dr. LaPierre, did not know the outcome. You also said he is in conflict of interest because he is a Director of NB Power, the provincially owned electric utility. NB power would be a customer for any natural gas that might be produced down the line. Calling that a conflict of interest is a bit of a stretch.

Dr. LaPierre has many affiliations. I have read his biographical details and it seems to me he is well qualified to have been hired by the government to do this study. He is an emeritus professor of biology at Université de Moncton. He held a chair of Sustainable Development at the same institution. He is chair of the Institute for Environmental Monitoring and Research associated with the low-level flying program in Labrador and northeastern Quebec. According to the biographical notes at the start of “The Path Forward,” his shale gas report, he is also on a list of “prequalified members of the assessment panels for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.” He is also involved with various environmental groups. It would seem he has done a lot of work on environmental impact, working with communities affected by it and he has a science background. While the NB Power directorship may have been worth a mention somewhere in the initial coverage when his report was released, it seems far outweighed by these other qualifications, and it does seem a bit of a stretch to make it a central issue of conflict of interest. I also note that in the introduction to his report, entitled “The Path Forward,” the directorship is referenced. CBC policy, referring to interviewees states:

“We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements.”

You also have concerns about the way CBC news stories characterized the nature of opposition to shale gas development. I have recently completed a review on that very issue. CBC News staff have frequently inserted a stock phrase to capture objections to fracking:

“Opponents of the process say it could have a negative effect on local water supplies and many of them have held protests across the province.”

In the review I noted that in an attempt to compress, there is a danger of oversimplification. To have real meaning, more context is required. Senior news staff in New Brunswick don’t disagree, and say they will find other ways to approach it. It may have been an oversimplification but it was not bias, and therefore not a violation of CBC policy.

Finally, you were concerned about the lack of coverage of an open letter sent by the alliance of anti-fracking groups in response to the release of new rules for the oil and gas industry. The government announced the regulations on February 15, and the alliance published its open letter on the 28th. You felt ignoring the letter failed “to report relevant developments in the shale gas issue… that are in all likelihood of public interest.” You thought this was a violation of the CBC policy to serve the public interest. This is what the mission statement on public interest says:

Our mission is to inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society.

What to cover on any given day is a judgment call: it depends on other news events, the degree of interest, resources available. The executive producer for News in New Brunswick, Dan Goodyear, explained that from the time the regulations were released, there had been a series of articles, stories and interviews that dealt with reaction. The news judgment was that covering the open letter itself did not provide a lot of new insight. Had CBC news systematically ignored opposition to fracking and to government policies, there might be reason for concern. This is clearly not the case.

CBC News in New Brunswick has consistently attempted to reflect a range of views and perspectives on the contentious issue of shale gas exploration in the province. You cited the excellent series “Fractured Future”. It is not realistic to expect that kind of depth in day to day news coverage. It does remain available to help citizens understand the issues at stake. There has been no violation of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman