Factual Reporting is not Always Balanced

Some issues simply do not deserve equal coverage of both sides

By Michael M. Barrick

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – Readers of this blog know I called into question the independence of the Clarksburg newspaper recently because its president has interests in the natural gas industry and it has rarely, if ever, cast a critical eye on the multiple negative impacts of fracking and natural gas pipeline development. Those who receive my email updates also know that the newspaper’s publisher and editor took exception and wrote an open letter to everyone on the list, insisting that the newspaper was independent. They also wrote, “Unlike your blog, we are truly independent.”

I believe my reports and columns stand on their own merit. We are independent; however, what I understand is that factual reporting is not always balanced – nor should it be.

This is certainly true of West Virginia’s dependence upon the fossil fuel mono-economy. The Mountain State has a long history of being exploited by the energy extraction industry. While it has provided the dignity that accompanies work, it has also caused tremendous harm to people and the environment. While it is important to acknowledge the dignity that comes with any work, it is also vital to acknowledge that coal, gas and oil companies virtually have unlimited resources to disseminate propaganda. For more than a century, the industry has exerted inordinate influence upon our political bodies. That is why is incumbent upon the press and media to counter those influences. Clearly, the pages of the Clarksburg paper don’t offer such a counter-balance. We all know the history of coal mining disasters. Now, mountaintop removal has been proven to cause harm to human beings. The same is true for fracking and the related pipeline development. These are scientific facts which we ignore at our own peril.

That does not mean that I deny that there have been some limited benefits from the energy extraction industry; nevertheless, present facts and the well-documented history of the industry prove that any benefits are far outweighed by the misery experienced by the people of the state and region, as well as the damages done to our sacred landscape.

The first energy extraction industry in the state was logging. Erosion, flooding and ugly landscapes were all that was left after the industry finished its work. To this day, a hiker accustomed to marveling at 150-year-old oak trees in the Pisgah Forest of North Carolina will struggle to find similar majesty in West Virginia’s forests.

Next was the coal industry, the history of which I have written about extensively. While one benefit of the industry is that it has provided jobs and the dignity that accompanies most work, many of Appalachia’s miners died (and are dying) from black lung disease. Hundreds of coal mining disasters have taken thousands of lives. In the early days of the industry, which occurred during America’s Gilded Age in the late 19th century, the unholy alliance among robber barons and politicians corrupted democratic institutions, allowed just a few to control the means of production and transportation (railroads), and created horrendous working conditions for miners. This continues to this day as anyone paying attention knows (e.g, the Upper Big Branch disaster and all of its related fall-out). Also, William C. Blizzard’s book “When Miners March,” – as well as several other books, documentaries and movies – provide accounts of how industry leaders and elected officials colluded to conduct a literal war upon coal miners. Furthermore, we know – as fact – that burning coal is contributing to climate change. Finally, the modern practice of mountaintop removal mining has led to destruction and misery for everyone impacted by it – unless one owns the mountain that is being blown up.

Furthermore, the coal industry has unlimited resources to spew forth its propaganda and to use teams of lawyers to intimidate and threaten its opponents. So, we are seeking to balance that with factual reporting about the many negative aspects of our state’s reliance upon a the fossil fuel mono-economy. In addition to providing balance, it is my hope that our reporting will also challenge readers to consider that perhaps we need to reconsider our priorities – to question whether profits for a few should be allowed to trump the need for clean air and water; safe and peaceful communities; and, again, the sacred nature of the wilderness and its ecosystems.

Most recently, we have seen the assault upon people, property rights and the earth by the gas companies and their partners, such as Duke Energy.

When I was a student at Notre Dame High School in the early 1970s, I was part of the debate team. I learned then the value of a healthy debate. So, I welcome the exchange between our publication and the Clarksburg newspaper, as well as the insights shared by many readers of our blog. We need a debate in our community, the state and nation about the role of journalists.

This is more than a debate though. This is a teachable moment. Some issues simply do not deserve equal coverage of both sides, because the facts do not support such a perspective. In West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southeastern Ohio, southwestern Pennsylvania, and southwestern Virginia, the facts are clear – powerful interests have removed the riches from the earth for their own profit, while leaving its people battered, bruised and impoverished. It has left its landscape forever scarred.

Now, with the proposed construction of more than a thousand miles of pipelines to transport natural gas, the negative consequences could move into areas of Virginia and North Carolina that have, to a large degree, escaped the negative impacts of the energy extraction industry.

Consequently, I do not apologize for adhering to the journalistic principle that factual reporting is not always balanced. Those who have had their well water destroyed by fracking, their land taken unjustly, or their husband and father killed at Sago or Upper Big Branch understand this.

It would appear that the Clarksburg paper does not. Nor do many other publications that have compromised their integrity for profit.

So, the question is, to what view of journalism do you subscribe?

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.

The Appalachian Preservation Project is also handling planning for the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. Learn about it here.

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6 responses

  1. I’m on your side because you care about West Virginia, West Virginians, and America.. This country definitely needs more people like yourself to protect us from corporations whose only concern is to make more profits exploiting anything they can get their “conflict-of-interest” hands on…Great Blog!!!

  2. I couldn’t agree more, Michael. When the coal industry is lopping off the tops of mountains, dumping millions of tons of former mountains in to headwater streams, polluting water downstream from their valley fills, annihilating communities and destroying valuable hardwood forests–no balance exists. The same could be applied to the gas industry–extracting gas from thousands of feet down and injecting Lord knows what into the earth (“produced water”)–it’s extreme extraction that is beyond balance and common sense. Keep up the great writing.

  3. Stephen McElroy | Reply

    Why not the benefits of domestic abuse (although I was not aware there were any). Mountain top removal brings to mind a photo of the beauty of the West Virginia landscape displayed a couple of years ago by a group opposed to mountain top removal. It was a great example… of a reclaimed landscape after a mountain top removal of several years ago.

    Fortunately there are many activists working to improve the health and safety of all stake holders in the West Virginia natural resources industries, and they continue to be successful in making improvements. I would hope that many that read your posts are taking an active part in changes that they feel are necessary. (personally I have become very disappointed in the lack of involvement by the people in this state).

    I totally agree that Mountaineers have not benefitted enough from the removal of our natural resources. Special interests rule in this state. Their influence in the Legislature, effecting laws and regulations, have not been challenged effectively by the one special interest I care about… the people. Lack of any meaningful interest in working to effect our government. Many complain. Few actually do something about it. I have attended rallies, information sessions, campaign meet and greets (rather than debates since the incumbents generally refuse to participate in an actual debate), whether in Charleston or locally, and very few citizens ever attend. Without citizen participation, Mountaineers will continue to be dominated by special interests and their campaign donations.

  4. On Beartooth Front, again!

  5. Linda Sue Hoppin | Reply

    No, it’s not balanced when the editor or publisher interferes with the story. WV and LA have a lot in common, they’re both banana republics. And newspapers in this state are frequently bully pulpits for their owners.

  6. […] Meanwhile, in Clarksburg, which is at the epicenter of the fracking industry, the city’s only newspaper – The Exponent-Telegram – has an owner who also owns interests in oil, gas and coal companies. The newspaper, which touts itself as “The Independent Voice of North Central West Virginia,” had not disclosed this conflict of interest to the public, even as it served as a cheerleader for the energy extraction industry. (Read more here and here). […]

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