I've long thought there was something amiss about how news outlets seem almost hyper-focused on reporting any potential conflicts of interest. Not that there's anything wrong with identifying those conflicts, but I think their importance is often over-played to the detriment of getting to the crux of issues.
Over the last decade of covering public health policy, I've never seen a clearer case of this type of bias than in a recent series of front-page New York Times articles about natural gas fracking.
The saga illustrates how selective reporting of conflicts of interests is simply brass-knuckle advocacy under the guise of journalism.
The debate over whether New York State will permit fracking, a process for extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale field in upstate New York, reached a fevered pitch as a decision neared.
In the midst of the highly charged debate, The New York Times published two articles by reporter Ian Urbina (June 25 and June 26) as part of a larger series critical of natural gas development. The front-page reports spun a compelling case that the energy industry and even the government had inflated shale reserve estimates.
The reporting relied heavily on anonymous sources and several industry "insiders." But what was so striking about the thinly veiled advocacy of the articles was that the few sources quoted on the record were not only heavily conflicted, but were portrayed as objective experts. Urbina muddled the identities of his sources — all critics of fracking — with irrelevant associations and omitted their chief affiliations relative to the issue.
Consider two of his sources, Art Berman and Deborah Rogers.
Urbina relied on Berman for an economic perspective, yet Berman is in fact a geologist. Further, he has consulted for foreign competitors who would gain from public criticism of the prospects of U.S. shale gas — a conflict that Urbina failed to disclose.
Similarly, Urbina relied on the opinion of Rogers, who he cites as "a member of the advisory committee of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas." In reality, Rogers is an organic goat farmer engaged in a bitter battle with the city of Fort Worth over shale gas drilling on property adjacent to her own. Her outside, unpaid role with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas had nothing to do with issues related to fracking.
Eventually, New York Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane wrote critically about Urbina's reporting tactics in pieces on July 16, July 31 and August 6. He acknowledged that the articles were based almost entirely on a handful of questionable sources with undisclosed biases and conflicts of interest.
Yet despite the stinging criticism from Brisbane, those responsible for upholding the journalistic integrity of the paper have stood by the flawed reporting, even after it was exposed. "The article challenges conventional wisdom and a powerful industry, so we expected criticism," national editor Richard Berke told the public editor. "But it is deeply sourced, meticulously reported and measured, and we would not change a word."
The paper downplayed the scandal by portraying it only as a "clash of views."
But this isn't a clash of views; it's a clash of ideals. The Times holds itself to high-minded journalistic standards when it's useful to do so, but ignores the most basic ethics when it isn't.
I'm confident The New York Times will report even the most obscure conflicts of interest the next time a source opines about a hyped environmental scare, overreaching legislation or unnecessary regulation. But when that happens, be sure as a reader to consider The New York Times's flexible journalistic standards — and where the bias really rests.
Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and heads its Risk Analysis Division. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffAStier.