Ian Urbina’s visit to campus Tuesday was a salient reminder of the power of the press.
In the pages of The Sun and in other publications, environmental activists have lauded Urbina’s investigative series in The New York Times, which examines the risks and efforts to regulate the natural gas exploration process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Previously, government and industry reports have assured that fracking is a safe and clean method of gas exploration. But Urbina has shed light on evidence of underground drinking water contamination, regulatory shortfalls in toxic wastewater disposal and government concessions to industry pressure.
Urbina’s critics range from gas industry backers who reject the preponderance of data against hydrofracking to individuals who call his journalistic integrity into question. For what is essentially a matter of weighing the facts — in news coverage and in scientific studies — the fracking debate has been rife with ad hominem attacks and petty attempts to undermine the credibility of journalists and researchers. Prof. Robert Howarth, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, faced such criticism after he penned a study last May exposing climate risks associated with fracking.
But what these critics fail to realize is that there is more at stake in this debate than reputation or personal interests. Urbina’s investigations have revealed information — much of it leaked from confidential government sources and confirmed internally by The Times — that would not have been privy to public scrutiny otherwise. Disseminating information undeniably benefits political discourse: An informed public is better able to articulate its views and compel the government to act in accordance with them.
In cases like the hydrofracking debate — where science, politics and industry are entwined in conflicting interests — a free press has the democratizing power to put information in people’s hands and let them decide for themselves. And when one party to an issue contests that information, a free press provides a forum from which to argue the other side.
The Constitution sanctions a free press, but the news media must make sure it is also a fair press. At a time where reliable news can be hard to find in the maelstrom of sophomoric Internet speech, media organizations must stick to the principles of good journalism. This means putting politics aside and digging deeper for the facts, finding and confirming reliable sources, and getting at the stories below the surface when evidence emerges to call a prevailing notion into question.
At the very least, Ian Urbina’s reporting — backed by documents and sources that both he and The New York Times deemed credible and fit to print — has strengthened public discourse on hydrofracking. No one will be able to say definitively whether fracking jeopardizes environmental and public health — until the practice becomes widespread, and scientific theories and risk assessments are proven true or false. It’s ultimately up to the free press to investigate these theories and report the news, without reverting to unsubstantiated back-and-forth claims.