Controversy: NYT Reporter Discusses Gas Drilling Coverage, What Nonprofits Can Learn

By on Wednesday, October 5, 2011
See Urbina’s work in the New York Times – Drilling Down series

In a lecture at Cornell University this week covered by the Ithaca Journal, New York Times reporter Ian Urbina discussed the challenges covering gas drilling issues. He noted that while often it’s been reported as an environmental story, this story really is multi-faceted and has many dimensions impacting lives and communities.

Getting the information needed for his reporting was tough and often took weeks of investigation as he had to use a portable gas detector from to find the chemical toxins and create a report on them individually. Chemicals and toxic materials can result from fracking techniques used to extract natural gas, and tracing what happens to that waste is an important part of the story as his reporting has developed. His stories have caused a push back from the natural gas industry, and Urbina believes his work has also contributed to the EPA monitoring the industry more closely.

Urbina’s reporting was the result of good old-fashioned journalism, but what can nonprofit communicators learn from Urbina’s lecture this week and reporting work on this important issue? Nonprofits working on important public issues like this one, often become information gatherers and draw attention that stimulates news coverage. Here’s a few ideas of what nonprofits can learn:

Get your facts organized. Collect data and document it. Not every reporter is going to be as organized as Urbina or be working at a news outlet with the resources of the New York Times. Be willing to share data and reports, as well as their sources, with reporters.

Don’t stereotype a potential story into only one beat. So often in public relations, we try to pitch a story to only reporters working a particular beat. Isolating a story into only one beat area may not be as productive as reaching out to another reporter, if the story has merit and other facets to it. That doesn’t mean you should pitch a story to a reporter that has clearly no interest whatsoever in the topic – but it does mean that if the story has other potential angles, you should consider approaching another journalist that you might not have considered before. It’s that unorthodox approach that’s refreshing, that might help sell the story.

Expect pushback. Good reporting that is honest and truthful can cause a response that you may not anticipate from others who don’t like it. Although Urbina does not reference this in his remarks, it’s likely that the nonprofit organizations and community groups working on this issue have also experienced a pushback from the industry, similar to what he’s experienced, for their efforts to inform the public. Expect for this to happen if you are doing good work. That’s why it’s so important that your facts are straight and your approach be aboveboard – if pushback happens – you want it to be because you were right, not because you were sloppy and didn’t know the facts.

Realize that stories have reverb. A good story – especially in a media outlet like the New York Times, is going to get attention and cause a ripple effect. Other stories and opportunities to educate the public about the issue will result. Don’t assume that one good story in a major outlet is a silver bullet and now you can stop your work to educate others and reach out. The reality is that one good story is just that – one good story. Take advantage of other opportunities to continue the dialogue and discussion about the issue.

Everyone wants to know what you think.

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