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Medill Energy Report Sparks Debate

04/29/2013 04:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2013
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Energy reporters need to understand science

You don't expect a donnybrook when a university like Northwestern releases a White Paper. Yet oh what fun it was to watch a liberal-minded geochemist mix it up with an American Petroleum Institute (API) spokeswoman last week at the Press Club in Washington.

"We cannot use the atmosphere as a garbage dump," asserted Wallace Broecker, Columbia University professor of Earth and Planetary Science. He said America needs to "put a price on carbon -- if you take it from the ground we need to charge for removing it from the atmosphere."

Dr. Broecker went on to say: "It's just immoral. We are saddling our great grandchildren."

Rayola Dougher, senior economic adviser for API, retorted: One should not "demonize our industry," suggesting petroleum exploration is costly and American demand drives it. "We are just the supplier and (our members) supply 62 percent of oil and gas. We don't create the demand. But we have the fuel available."

Somehow, the Northwestern University professors and their Medill School of Journalism students who compiled the energy study, had lost the moderator role -- or at least moderation. The report and recommendations on how to make energy issues reporting more accessible to readers called "Energizing Media Coverage of Energy Issues" was ambitious for sure. Students went across the country to study everything from hydrofracturing fields in North Dakota (the "black gold rush"), to a wind farm in Cape Cod to ocean waves off the Oregon coast to look at how energy production -- traditional or renewable -- is covered.

Other panelists included: Juliet Eilperin, White House Correspondent for The Washington Post and a veteran climate change journo expert; Lucia Graves, energy reporter for The Huffington Post; materials chemist and member of the National Academy of Sciences and professor at Northwestern, Mark Ratner; and Joshua Sheinkman from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"Look at the science," said Dougher. "[Journalists] have to look at the numbers properly." She made a ratio of price at the pump to Exxon's reporting of profitability coming out this week.

The Huffington Post's Graves has worked hard on environmental justice reporting and held her own against the Columbia and API titans. She asked the young reporters attending to try to be balanced and really look at energy issues. Graves said she has been frustrated by the lack of transparency in the Obama Administration.

"They talked a big game," Graves said about Obama's energy policy folks, "but now they are not talking."

Eilperin of the Post is interested in the oceanographic part of the Medill report. "We can translate climate science to ocean acidification." She said it's important to "talk about the the connection to the sea and (what's at) the bottom of the food chain."

Eilperin added that: "Climate change is here and now", urging reporters on energy to make "real connections to people."

Medill Professor and most recently head of the j-school's Washington program Ellen Shearer, and Assistant Professor Abigail Foerstner edited the research and led the reporting work nationally. Assistant Professor Ashlee Humphreys led the more empirical research. The students tested 36 stories for tone, bias and audience responsiveness.

For more info or a copy of the paper contact Medill at: 202-661-0101.