Illinois Newspaper Gives Up on Journalism, Bends Over for Oil & Gas Industry

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WillinoisThe Southern Illinoisan has a long-running competition with the Belleville News-Democrat over which Illinois newspaper has the strongest bias in favor of the coal industry. So I was pleasantly surprised last year when I saw the Southern Illinoisan doing good reporting on the fracking issue, even giving frequent voice to the opposition. That changed.

A recent article in the Southern is so ridiculous, so over the top misleading, it looks like they’ve given up on doing real journalism about fracking.

Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing our Environment (SAFE) sent out a press release last week full of facts and figures on worker safety problems in the fracking industry. Illinois’ weak fracking law doesn’t address the problem. The Southern first responded with an article that gives more space to defensive responses from industry supporters than it does to citing facts and studies. That showed bias, but you won’t believe what they published next!

The Southern ran an article titled “Fracking workers: It’s safe, it’s good” with anecdotal stories from two workers in the industry who have witnessed non-fatal accidents at fracking sites in North Dakota. There was no mention of the fact that North Dakota now has the highest rate of deadly workplace accidents, thanks largely to the fracking industry.

The article is no different than running anecdotal stories about two heavy smokers who lived past age 90 and failing to mention studies linking cigarettes to cancer. If it didn’t hurt those two it must be safe, right? It’s not journalism. It’s propaganda.

Maybe tomorrow the Southern will feature an article about two people who haven’t been in deadly traffic accidents, so clearly all roads must be perfectly safe! Don’t worry about those pesky rumors and studies on how many people die in auto accidents each year.

The Southern published good coverage of issues related to fracking for a while. I’ve watched as their bias has grown more obvious. When hundreds of people attended the two southern Illinois public hearings on fracking, they scrubbed any mention of the repeated calls by multiple members of the public for non-violent civil disobedience to stop the industry. When Josh Fox spoke to a crowd of over 600 locals, they did no follow-up story at all.

The paper has good reporters clearly capable of doing honest journalism. I hope their professional reputations aren’t irreparably damaged by the embarrassing decisions of their editors.

People were shocked earlier this year when two southern Illinois newspapers announced they were banning letters, articles, and even paid advertisements opposed to fracking. They instituted the blackout just weeks before the public voted on a local referendum to ban fracking. In a way, I have to respect the honesty of those papers admitting to their decision. It’s almost better than the Southern‘s attempt to maintain the facade of an honest news organization while giving people an inaccurate picture of fossil fuel news.

The oil and gas industry have a problem. The more people learn about fracking, the more opposition grows. Too much accurate reporting resulted in a powerful anti-fracking movement. Industry already have politicians like Brandon Phelps singing their song after hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions. Now they’re targeting southern Illinois news outlets that print too many pesky facts.

A free press is essential to democracy. The oil and gas industry are attempting to rig the public debate in favor of a law that was negotiated by lobbyists behind closed doors and rushed through the legislature with less than an hour of public debate. Some legislators openly admitted knowing very little about the issue before casting their vote. This isn’t just an attack on the environment. It’s an attack on informed, democratic decision-making.

© 2014 Willinois. This article is reproduced by permission of the author. All rights reserved.