Anatomy of an NPR Hatchet Job, Target: Oil & Gas
“On-The-Job Deaths Spiking As Oil Drilling Quickly Expands” screams a supposed National Public Radio exposé on the “terrible price” we’re paying for the fracking revolution that has transformed the U.S. energy industry. “Last year, 138 workers were killed on the job — an increase of more than 100 percent since 2009.” The story blends chilling statistics, heartrending anecdotes, and stern warnings from Labor Secretary Thomas Perez calling for a national voluntary stand-down of U.S. onshore oil and gas exploration and production because, “No worker should lose their (sic) life for a paycheck.”
As anti-fossil fuel advocacy, it was a masterful piece. But was it responsible, credible journalism? Five minutes on Google provides an answer—and lays bare NPR’s practiced techniques of framing, context manipulation, and choosing which facts to report and which to ignore to advance a consistent left-liberal editorial agenda as biased as any right wing talk radio show.
Take a look at the Annual Occupational Fatality Rate for oil and gas workers reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dating back to 1993. The annual fatality rate in 1993 was about 25 fatalities per 100,000 workers. In 2012, the year that caused such alarm at NPR, it was … 24 per 100,000 workers. This is lightly down from 2003, when the rate ticked up to 29 after the CDC changed its reporting methodology toinclude data from industries in Mexico and Canada.
What caused the “spike” that began in 2010? The prior year saw a recent low for fatalities, likely due to the recession and unusually low natural gas prices vastly curtailing exploration. As the oil patch recovered, both activity and accidents returned to the mean.
Is 24 fatalities per 100,000 workers a large number? It depends on the context. The on-the-job fatality rate across all industries is about3.2 per 100,000. But that includes me sitting at my keyboard. What is the fatality rate for, say, farming? About 26, which is comparable to the wicked and reckless oil and gas industry. How about commercial fishing? Yikes, the fatality rate is 124! If we’re going to regulate fracking out of existence to save lives, does NPR also recommend that we stop eating?
What was the leading cause of fatalities among oil and gas workers? About 30 percent died as a result of car accidents on public roads. And the leading contributing factor was that the driver wasn’t wearing a seatbelt—the same as with other auto fatalities. So then, what was the NIOSH Oil & Gas Extraction Safety & Health Program’s number one recommendation for reducing fatalities in the oil and gas industry? Less emphasis on profits? Reduced drilling and exploration? Nope. Drivers should wear their seatbelts.
How much airtime did NPR devote to these facts? Nada.
Topic selection, framing, fact selection, guest selection, expert selection, questions asked, questions not asked, anecdotes included, and anecdotes left on the cutting room floor can slant a story any way an editor chooses. How many other NPR listeners took the time to dig a little deeper after hearing this piece? My guess is that most walked away shaking their heads, cursing greedy oil and gas executives for putting profits before people—as per the editors’ intentions.
Award winning NPR reporters Andrew Schneider and Marilyn Geewax should be ashamed, not just for producing such biased and shoddy work, but for making themselves easy targets for anyone caring enough to spend five minutes to debunk their propaganda. Most NPR reporters take a lot more care covering their tracks, but their techniques are all the same. It is extremely rare to hear an outright falsehood on the air; but once you tune your ear to recognize the methodology, NPR will never sound quite the same.
Don’t get me wrong, I listen to taxpayer supported public radio all the time, both because of the compelling content and to keep tabs on how the news is being spun by the best of the best. But to paraphrase the great Frederic Bastiat, when assessing journalistic objectivity we need to consider not only what is heard, but also what is not heard.