Can the media get energy stories right?

"You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in... 60 years. "

If you’re a regular reader of this site, it’s likely because you find energy coverage from existing media sources lacking, either in quantity or quality.

I don’t mean to imply that there isn’t good journalism out there on energy issues. There is – a lot – and collecting that content into one place is the foundation of Midwest Energy News.

But energy is a complex subject. And sometimes, well-meaning reporters just don’t get the story right. Why is that?

An article posted yesterday on the Columbia Journalism Review website explores the issue. Obviously, shrinking newsroom staffs and budgets are a major part of the problem. But less visible, and less talked about, is a dynamic of newsroom culture that can conspire against nuanced reporting.

First – it’s important to understand that commercial news outlets exist first and foremost to generate a profit for their owners.

That’s why, for instance, local TV news is often disproportionately focused on weather, traffic and violent crime. Or why a small-city newspaper might have more reporters assigned to cover high school sports than city government. Informing the public is a central part of a news organization’s mission, but the financial incentive is to attract as many eyeballs as possible.

So, in order for a reporter to get editors’ interest in a dry, complex topic like energy, there has to be a hook that makes it interesting. And often, that hook is public controversy.

Andrew Revkin calls this the “tyranny of conflict” – where news coverage “focuses on the loud edges of debate.” It’s one of the reasons we’re stuck in a false narrative about climate science, for example, because rather than reporting on science, news outlets tend to focus on arguments about science.

But the dynamic applies to all sorts of stories. In the CJR article, Brian Walsh of Time magazine describes the evolution of electric car coverage:

Stage One of “the three stages of writing about electric cars”—and about clean technology more generally. It’s the hype stage: This technology is going to save America, solve all of our problems, possibly eliminate terrorism in the process. The entrepreneur is the “visionary hero,” and the technology is usually oversold.

Stage Two overcorrects: The technology is a fraud, it’s a colossal waste of money, and even if it did work the Chinese would beat us to it. With electric cars, this is where reporters covered the driver who ran out of battery power and had to call a tow truck, the lack of infrastructure for charging the cars, the insurmountable uphill battle for market share.

And finally, in Stage Three, reality begins to emerge. “The technology isn’t going to change the way we drive overnight,” said Walsh, “and it isn’t going to save the planet, but there is a place for it.”

Sound familiar?

It’s coincidental to be discussing this on a day when nearly every major story on the Midwest Energy News home page centers around conflict between landowners and developers. Even our own story, on the proposed South Heart coal mine in North Dakota, is as much about the controversy as the project itself. So I’m not pretending to be above this sort of thing – and frankly, journalists have an obligation to amplify the voices of citizens who might not otherwise have much say in the process.

But taken too far, the focus on controversy can lead to the disastrous result of a confused and misinformed public. In a post on Grist yesterday, David Roberts wrote about how this dynamic conflated the “Climategate” email hacking:

…the story followed a depressingly familiar trajectory: hyped relentlessly by right-wing media, bullied into the mainstream press as he-said she-said, and later, long after the damage is done, revealed as utterly bereft of substance. It’s a familiar script for climate faux controversies, though this one played out on a slightly grander scale.

What’s the solution? I’m not going to pretend to know the answer. Small, niche sites like this one can do quality work, but don’t have the reach to become commercially profitable (we rely on philanthropy funding). Big news organizations like the New York Times and the BBC do outstanding journalism, but lack the resources to dive deep on local and regional issues.

The ProPublica model allows reporters to focus on doing good work while leveraging the reach of established sites to reach a broader audience. That arrangement is likely to become more common in the future.

What can you do to help? For now, support news organizations that add value to the discussion. That may mean sending a donation or doing business with a key advertiser.

But recognize, above all, that good journalism doesn’t come cheaply.

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