October 6, 2011

Letter to the Editor: Questioning Urbina’s journalistic integrity

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To the Editor: Re: “Times’ Urbina Speaks About Covering Fracking,” News, Oct. 5

This is not about fracking — its benefits, its dangers, or if I support it. These questions will be answered by science, and science alone. This is about basic journalistic credibility. Ian Urbina was brought to Cornell on Tuesday as the “Kops Freedom of The Press” lecturer. Some characterize Urbina’s investigations for The New York Times as groundbreaking, but his work is much less reliable and trustworthy than it seems.For more information, I interviewed Jon Entine, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) at George Mason University. Entine writes for publications across the political spectrum and has closely examined Urbina’s work. Entine explained that there are two clear issues at stake. First, throughout the lecture, Urbina bragged of having thousands of pages of paperwork that “resulted in and have given rise to the impact the series has had.” Entine explained that that though most of the quotes Urbina uses are from so-called “anonymous” sources, Arthur E. Berman, a Houston geologist, was cited for his criticism of natural gas drilling from shale. What Urbina and the “credible” New York Times do not explain is that Berman had a clear financial conflict associated with natural gas drilling. Berman is a strategic partner for Middlefield Capital, a company invested in other non-natural energy companies. He had a clear stake in aggressively and publicly opposing natural energy: not a sign of a credible source for an “investigative” piece.The second — more problematic — issue Entine discussed is the connection between Urbina and the Cornell study on fracking. The study was released in May of this year and, according to Prof. Robert Howarth’s statement to the Cornell Chronicle, argues: “Shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil …” A month later, Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a study that found that replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas plants is “the lowest cost way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 50 percent.” M.I.T. professors also criticized Cornell’s study as being “a really poor piece of work.”When the opportunity came for Cornell to bring a journalist to campus who could speak about freedom of the press, it seems as though they focused more on finding an individual who backed up their poorly administered study, instead of a fair, unbiased individual who truly exemplified journalistic integrity. Urbina has manipulated public opinion by using unreliable sources and providing biased, one-sided information. Cornell has rewarded him in an attempt to improve its reputation. If this were an opinion piece, journalistic principles would not be at question, but Urbina’s fracking series has been classified as investigative news and, astonishingly, The New York Times has continued to allow its progression.All energy sources have risks associated with them. It is time we have a clear discussion about natural gas that fairly analyzes costs and benefits in comparison to other energy sources. I expected more from The New York Times and from Cornell. For accredited organizations like these, “Freedom of The Press” entails the freedom to express their opinions, but also the responsibility to clearly differentiate those opinions from facts.

Karim Lakhani ’14