My nature and disposition are better suited for reporting and writing than public speaking. But it’s hard to write a book about an issue like fracking and then duck out of the fray.
So I do what I can as a speaker, and it's a role I find both challenging and fruitful. As a reporter, I seek out sources as part of my work-a-day routine. Less frequently do they seek me out (although that frequency is increasing in the Internet age.) The dynamic is different at public talks. Here I encounter in one spot a freewheeling mix of those there to listen and those there to tell me something, with protocols and expectations that tend to change from group to group. Speaking invitations have taken me to some diverse venues including geology conventions, libraries, bookstores, universities, a retirement community and a brewery. Some audiences tend to be neutral, some opinionated, and some committed to specific advocacy positions for or against gas drilling. Some are more informed than others. Some have unique experiences or are tied to the outcome of the story in a compelling and personal way. Some spontaneously become sources: the young couple in Greenville, Pennsylvania who anxiously await drilling crews to begin Utica Shale exploration on their property with large measures of both hope and anxiety and little concrete information; or community members in Oberlin, Ohio mystified about the workings and functions of a nearby disposal well; or a geology expert in Buffalo who offers technical insights in the interest of boosting clarity and credibility in my work. Spontaneous public turbulence is vital to all journalism. It can complicate a simple story line, but it also aerates and enriches reporting by broadening a reporter’s knowledge base and empathy for stakeholders.
In upcoming weeks, I will be participating at singular events hosted by groups at opposite ends of the fracking spectrum. On Wednesday, I will give a talk at Revolution Books in Manhattan– a store that provides customers “who refuse to accept the horrors of today’s world” with “the books and the deep engagement with each other about why the world is the way it is and the possibility of a radically different way the world could be.” I expect the audience will include anti-fracking activists who feel Big Energy’s grip on natural resources and influence on global politics comes at the expense of public health and the environment.
On May 30, I will moderate a forum in Albany hosted by the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, a group that sees shale gas development as an economic engine and means for national independence. The forum will include speakers from the industry, medical community, and academia who will “debunk myths” about shale gas development. I expect the audience will include some people who feel that environmental and health risks are merely a fabrication of liberal interests challenging the system of free enterprise.
I have agreed to both of these forums because they give me a front row seat. As a journalist, I think it’s critical to be engaged in and witness to all aspects of this debate and to learn as much as I can as I go. I do not have a formal position on whether the risks of shale gas development outweigh the rewards. But I am not exactly a disinterested observer. I feel strongly that transparency in matters of overwhelming public interest is one that is naturally embraced by any journalist, and there is a critical need for transparency, provided by aggressive reporting, in the energy industry.
I also believe that the press serves as an agent for reform and a popular counterbalance to concentrations of wealth and power. Some call this watchdog journalism, which is a fitting and non-political name. But I don't shy away from this: This brand of watchdog journalism embodies liberal ideals that traditionally have been associated with the traditional media since the days of Joseph Pulitzer and Upton Sinclair. Journalists are not there to take sides, but to equip society – commoners as well as elites -- with the tools it needs for self-governance, and that begins with a spotlight on matters of public interest.