New York Times responds to shale story critics

The New York Times’ recent stories on skepticism over the profitability of natural gas shale exploration and production has prompted some fierce feedback from industry.

One conservative watchdog group called on the New York Times’ public editor (an editor designated to deal with complaints, corrections or other disputes over the paper’s coverage) to investigate the stories.

So he did.

Over the weekend NYT public editor Arthur Brisbane wrote about his inquiry into some of the criticisms of the stories, which included claims of incomplete information about some of the key sources.

Brisbane notes that the story was clearly trying to set itself up as an early warning of possible financial calamity by invoking phrases such as “Enron,” “Ponzi schemes” and “dot-coms” early on.

“Raising the prospect of a fall, though, is a journalistic gamble,” Brisbane said. “Adding to the risk, the story painted its subject with an overly broad brush and didn’t include dissenting views from experts who aren’t entrenched on one side or another of the subject.”

Brisbane asked the reporter and editors involved in the story why the piece failed to mention the rapid growth of shale gas as an energy source — a point raised by story critics as proof the underlying thesis was flawed:

“The journalists said The Times had already cited the big picture of a gas boom in the “Drilling Down” series opener back in February and had thoroughly covered it elsewhere,” Brisbane says.

He also asked why articles didn’t include input from oil majors like like Exxon Mobil, whose recent investment in shale would counter the notion that it’s a Ponzi scheme:

“Mr. Urbina and Adam Bryant, a deputy national editor, said the focus was not on the major companies but on the “independents” that focus on shale gas, because these firms have been the most vocal boosters of shale gas, have benefited most from federal rules changes regarding reserves and are most vulnerable to sharp financial swings.”

That distinction between oil majors and independents was lost on many readers, Brisbane said, including those familiar with the industry.

Brisbane also asked about omissions of details about the background of two key sources in the pieces, Houston geologist Art Berman and Deborah Rogers:

“My view is that such a pointed article needed more convincing substantiation, more space for a reasoned explanation of the other side and more clarity about its focus.

The Times journalists countered that their reporting consisted of more than three dozen interviews with industry experts, and analysis of S.E.C. filings from two dozen companies and data from more than 9,000 wells. The Times also published several dozen e-mails from industry officials and federal regulators voicing concerns.

“The article challenges conventional wisdom and a powerful industry, so we expected criticism,” said Richard L. Berke, the national editor. “But it is deeply sourced, meticulously reported and measured, and we would not change a word.”

Brisbane agrees the article challenged conventional thinking.

“But the article went out on a limb, lacked an in-depth dissenting view in the text and should have made clear that shale gas had boomed,” Brisbane concluded.