When the ‘facts’ get fractured by the media, nobody wins . . .

News media increasingly less literate on complex issues simply because they no longer have the time to bone up on the basics

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Bill Whitelaw‘Facts’ should be the arbiters of truth. But facts lose their efficacy when they are enslaved to perspectives rarely connected factually to each other. It’s the interplay between ‘facts’ and ‘opinion’ that does a disservice to the facts – and to anyone interested in learning the facts.

Witness how the facts lost the credibility battle with the release of new research linking hydraulic fracturing in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin to seismic activity in areas of oil and gas development. The report hit the headlines and airwaves everywhere recently.

The fact is this research simply quantifies with more detail something already known to industry and those who regulate it in Alberta and British Columbia. It points out some newer dynamics (fracturing itself as a catalyst for seismic events rather than water injection, for example). And like all such studies, it comes with qualifiers and caveats.

But despite all of that, it is being presented as a new set of facts.

This coverage and its implications must also be considered within the context of a conventional media model that long prided itself on being an objective and balanced purveyor of the facts. The reality is that this model is profoundly broken. Yes, a national broadcaster and a national newspaper still exist, and they retain some of the credibility they once enjoyed in the ‘fact’ space. But the fractured model upon which they valiantly struggle no longer provides the necessary revenues that for so long funded newsrooms and staff equipped to get it right. Reporters and editors are increasingly less literate on complex issues such as hydraulic fracturing simply because they no longer have the time to bone up on the basics.

Call it hydraulic ‘facturing,’ if you will: the factual foundation of an important issue is shattered and spins into the public domain ruptured from any meaningful context.

Nobody wins when a misplay of the facts contribute to polarization.

As well, the mainstream media is often in competition with social media – in which the facts and their rooting in appropriate context is of little regard – to produce information that grabs attention in an era in which anyone with a smartphone and five minutes is a content producer. The mainstream media is at the mercy of the Internet’s disregard for effective context curation.

Legacy media is caught in a complex confluence of changing information production and consumption patterns. So it’s important to understand the nuanced relationship between facts and the contexts that produce them. We also need to recognize the narrowness of scope through which we see complex issues that have policy, economic and social dimensions.

Consider this from Ben Parfitt, a resource analyst for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, who suggests that it may be only a matter of time before a fracking earthquake does serious harm: “The frightening thing about the linkages between these drilling and fracking activities and earthquakes is that the professionals who look at the industry and try to understand what is going on below the surface actually have no way of predicting what’s going to happen.”

This is presented as fact by the Globe and Mail – but it stands in stark contrast to the research facts previously presented in the same article. Not only does it essentially contradict (i.e., percentages of actual wells causally linked to seismic events) and erode their credibility, it is in itself not factual.

Industry has invested heavily in new technology to measure seismic activity, not only to respond effectively to public (and regulatory) concerns but also to ensure the industry’s development activity is environmentally and economically sustainable.

Industry groups like the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources are connecting regulators and operators with communities and research enterprises. CSUR is a clear and neutral advocate for a scientifically grounded, empirically framed dialogue between all parties.

But that doesn’t make for catchy headlines.

Scientific research, independent of the industry’s investigations, adds tremendous value – but not when the facts are fractured by ill-informed agendas and media myopia.

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group (and a director and nominations chair on the board of directors of the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources.)

Bill is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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