May 07, 2012

Rhetoric and Findings Go Hand in Hand With Fracking Report

The University of Texas Energy Institute released a study on the effects of hydraulic fracturing, which raised attention not only for its findings, but for its visual design and rhetoric. Courtesy of Energy Institute, The University of Texas at Austin.

By Lynda Gonzalez
For Reporting Texas

In February, the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin made a big splash with its report on hydraulic fracturing, claiming that the process popularly known as “fracking” doesn’t contaminate groundwater. The report gathered attention from international media sources like The Independent and The Guardian in London.

To some, however, the title of the report, “Separating Fact from Fiction in Shale Gas Development,” and its graphic design make a rhetorical point, as do its favorable findings for the industry and criticism of the media’s role in raising doubts about the safety of fracking.

Just don’t call it “fracking” to people in the industry or those who wrote the report.

“The industry created the term fracking as shorthand, and environmentalists who oppose hydraulic fracturing have adopted fracking as a curse word,” said Michael Webber, a mechanical engineering professor and co-director of the Clean Energy Incubator. “Now it’s a pejorative.”

The emotional charge of words like “fracking” or “climate change” or “global warming” has brought attention to the rhetoric surrounding environmental issues, which has become a key bullet point in debates. The language of “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s 1962 analysis of the negative ecological impact of pesticides, is still under scrutiny almost half a century later. Rhetoric, the use of discourse to persuade others to favor one’s own perspective, has become as much a force in the environmental debate as the science itself. Environmental advocates are also concerned with how rhetoric factors into promoting an agenda.

The Energy Institute report has received praise for its credibility because the institute exclusively conducted research with university funds and under the oversight of the Environmental Defense Fund, a watchdog organization in environmental practices. The New York Times environmental blogger Andy Revkin referred to the study as an “invaluable report” that brought fresh research into the conversation surrounding the natural gas industry.

“Our biggest concern was to make sure this was an unbiased report,” Matt Eastin said. An associate professor of advertising at the University of Texas, Eastin led the media analysis included in the Energy Institute report. “We wanted to just let the facts speak for the facts. It’s a unique position that universities are in that we are sort of able to say what the data says and our interpretation of it.”

The study was designed to appeal to overlapping audiences that include members of Congress, journalists and the general public, said Gary Rasp, the UT Energy Institute communications director. The bold look of the cover, though meant to be engaging, is appropriate for the high-profile issue, he said.

“On the whole it’s been received very well by a variety of stakeholders. It’s been perceived, and rightly so, as an impartial, credible analysis of what’s going on in shale gas development,” Rasp said.

Not all reports are accepted so well. Last May, a Duke University study had different findings from the UT report; it reported high methane levels in groundwater after analyzing more than 60 private water wells across Pennsylvania and New York. The study attributed the contamination to sloppy practices rather than any specific cause and suggested better oversight during drilling, which approximated a recommendation in the UT study. But it set off an angry reaction from the natural gas industry, which called the report an attempt to rally public opinion — in this case, against hydraulic fracturing.

UT communication studies doctoral candidate Valerie Thatcher said that’s a fair critique of both studies.

“From a design standpoint, a visual-rhetorical, and a rhetorical standpoint – all of them say this is a ‘PR’ thing,” Thatcher said of the UT report.

Thatcher, who is writing her dissertation on environmental rhetoric, said the Energy Institute study raises a flag with its word choice, or rhetoric, and design.

“When I see just the words ‘Fact or Fiction’ taking up a third of the cover, that right there is saying this is something I need to pay attention to, there’s some meaning behind this,” Thatcher said, elaborating on her analysis of its visual rhetoric. “‘Fact’ is obviously one of their key terms. This is the thing that they want to get across more than anything. Whether it is fact or not, they’re promoting it as fact.”

Rasp offered a simpler explanation for the title: Charles Groat, an associate director from the institute who led the project, uses the phrase “separating fact from fiction” frequently.

“There’s a lot of contentious debate surrounding this issue,” Rasp said. “Much of it is based on anecdote, innuendo and emotion, and so we felt it was really critical to conduct a study that was fact-based in order to inject some science into this public discourse.”

Rasp, in fact, is proud of what he calls the report’s accessible language and design.

“I don’t think you have to be boring to be credible,” he said. “It was intended to grab the reader’s attention and to be graphically engaging, and I think that’s important. The research itself is important, and we didn’t want the design to supersede the message of the report. On the other hand, we don’t want it to be ignored, so it strikes a balance.”

Rhetorical concerns aside, the report also highlights the tension between the nature and roles of science and journalism.

The report’s media analysis, organized by Eastin, focused solely on the tone of selected articles and whether the coverage cited scientific research. Researchers categorized articles as negative or positive based on the subject matter. A story about an explosion during hydraulic fracturing was automatically categorized as negative. A story exploring the economic benefits of the natural gas boom was positive.

Kris Wilson, a UT senior lecturer in journalism, said that reviewing stories on tone alone is a highly subjective and narrow way of looking at the media.

“Instead of ‘positive’ and ‘negative,’ I would encourage terminology such as ‘accurate,’ ‘needs clarification’— something that isn’t as accurate as they’d like as opposed to some sort of emotional judgment about it,” Wilson said.

As for the low percentage of articles that cited scientific research, Wilson said that referring to official documents is a standard that scientists would like to see more widely applied in the media.

“Part of what we do as journalists is rely on people’s first-hand experiences,” said Wilson, who researches media coverage of environmental issues and climate change. “Scientists sometimes don’t understand that it’s a different kind of narrative. We’re telling stories for the public in lay terms, not speaking in research lingo back and forth.”

Environmental groups are concerned not only with how the message was delivered, but with the message itself — the report’s finding that fracturing did not cause groundwater contamination.

Cyrus Reed, the conservation director for the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, a  conservation organization, said that the industry will promote findings like the UT study because it narrowly focuses on the hydraulic fracturing practice itself rather than all the problems that can occur as a result of it.

“There’s a little bit of a disconnect in that the industry tends to focus on the statement that hydraulic fracturing doesn’t cause groundwater pollution,” Reed said. “It’s important to know that just because a particular frack job doesn’t lead to groundwater problems, it doesn’t mean that there’s not problems surrounding it as a whole.”

It’s difficult for a study to prove causality between environmental and health concerns involving hydraulic fracturing and the practice itself, Reed said. He said that groups like the Sierra Club therefore promote legislation in a way that doesn’t rely on health or environmental threats to prove a point. They focus on appealing to the interests of both the industry and the community.

The last thing anyone wants, Reed said, is for a disaster such as the Deepwater Horizon blowout to tarnish the reputation of hydraulic fracturing.

“It’s really in the interest of the oil and gas industry,” he said. “They need to consider these things if they want to make all these fortunes now and [not] face millions of lawsuits down the road.”

As The Wall Street Journal recently put it, the industry might have won the engineering battle with reports like that of the Energy Institute’s but lost the PR war. Despite Revkin’s sanction of the report, his readers seem to remain skeptical.

“The UT study, I thought, was also good, but also uses semantics and some technicalities to dismiss some of the environmental concerns, when I think the issues are less cut and dry,” reader A.L. from New York commented on the blog. “The UT study put emphasis on the environmental risk of above-ground fluids and waste, without exploring the degree to which the dangerous components of those fluids and waste are produced as a result of fracking.”

When it comes to the intersection of science, the environment and journalism, the weaponry of rhetoric is a concern to all parties involved. According to the report’s media analysis, there is room for improvement for journalists in covering the natural gas industry. The same is applicable to scientists, especially when most engineering-specific language is lost on general readership, according to Webber.

“The risk is that the main point [of scientific studies] gets lost,” he said. “I think training scientists and engineers to convey their research in an effective way is a very key thing, and we’re not trained that way. We’re not really trained to communicate, and so getting us to learn how to communicate in a language that other people actually speak might be useful.”