Focusing Public Attention—and Staying With a Story Relentlessly
ProPublica’s first story on hydraulic fracturing—a July 2008 article, published in partnership with the Albany Times-Union and WNYC Radio, that disclosed that the state of New York was about to permit drilling near the New York City watershed—had immediate impact: The governor of New York immediately put a stop to what might have quickly become unchecked and unregulated drilling. But the larger impact of the more than 160 stories we’ve published on fracking since then came in the months and years that followed, as the issue was picked up by bloggers, environmental writers and documentarians, notably Josh Fox, the director of the 2010 award-winning (and Oscar-nominated) film “Gasland.” Subsequent ProPublica publishing partners for this work have included BusinessWeek, the Denver Post, the Guardian, the Middletown [NY] Times-Herald-Record, public television’s Need to Know, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Politico, Salon, the San Diego Union-Tribune and Wyofile.
We’ve been gratified that judges for various journalism prizes recognized the importance of our own work on fracking, which was a finalist for the Kennedy School’s prestigious Goldsmith Prize in 2009, and in 2010 won a George Polk Award, the National Press Foundation Best Energy Writing award, and the Society of Professional Journalists award for best online investigative reporting.
During the early years of our work on this story, the lead ProPublica reporter, Abrahm Lustgarten, was one of the only reporters covering this beat, and faced a barrage of industry criticism. But Lustgarten recognized fracking as a profoundly important national story, and he traveled to towns like Dimock, Pa., to show how this new technology was affecting the lives of ordinary Americans. A former professional photographer, Lustgarten took a series of moving pictures to illustrate his stories.
Greater attention to fracking ensued in 2011, with Fox’s Oscar nomination, our own publication of a Kindle Single on fracking, and then when several large newspapers, including the New York Times, followed in Lustgarten’s footsteps, traveling to Dimock and other locales to tell the story. This reporting brought the issues raised by ProPublica to larger national audiences. These issues included:
- Water treatment issues in New York (ProPublica, July 22, 2008);
- Statutory exemptions for drilling (ProPublica, November 13, 2008);
- Documented cases of contamination of drinking water (ProPublica, April 26, 2009);
- Industry misinformation about the process (ProPublica, July 8, 2009);
- Dangers of effluent in rivers and streams (ProPublica, October 3, 2009);
- Radioactivity and fracking (ProPublica, November 9, 2009);
- Chemicals left in the ground by fracking (ProPublica, December 27, 2009);
- Economic impacts (ProPublica, December 31, 2009);
- Methane and CO2 concerns (ProPublica, January 25, 2011); and
- Health impacts on local communities (ProPublica, September 16, 2011)
The National Academy of Sciences, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Administration have all more closely scrutinized fracking, and tentative legislative efforts which began in 2008 have gained steam. Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania have mandated disclosure of fracking chemicals.
Today, we’re delighted to see that local and national newspapers across the country have full-time reporters covering fracking. They have continued to build on the pioneering work by Abrahm Lustgarten and ProPublica.
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