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Journalists, Sources, and the Alberta Oil Sands

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Jennifer Friesen

on 7 January 2013

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Transcript of Journalists, Sources, and the Alberta Oil Sands

The Alberta Oil Sands, Journalists
and Their Sources Research Funder: Oil Sands Research and Information Network
University of Alberta, Canada
Published January 2012 Research Question: What Sources do Journalists use when covering the Alberta oil sands and why? Search for Sources Internet Personal Contacts Media Releases Journalists’ experience covering oil sands Journalist Location Gender “Energy security and access to energy and the geopolitics of energy. The degree to which human health is prioritized next to the need to develop the resource, and the third would be the role of science – real science – in the future development of policy and future development of the resource.” 20 Journalists Interviewed 16 journalists employed full time with media organizations 3 former journalists with extensive oil sands reporting experience 1 freelancer 11 had 0-5 years experience 4 had 11 to 15 years experience 3 had 20 years plus experience 1 had 6 to 10 years experience 1 had 16 to 20 years experience 17 based in Alberta 3 located in the rest of Canada 14 Men 6 Women Driving Issues How would you describe the driving issues in the oil sands? 14 mentioned “the tension between energy or economic security and environmental concerns” 3 mentioned “local, provincial and national economic issues” 3 said industry has lost the upper hand when it comes to telling the world what is happening with oil sands development 1 mentioned the effect of oil sands development on Aboriginal communities "The environmental impact, the impact on the workers, and the scientific aspect because we’re going on new uncharted technology and there could be problems with the people who have to live with it." "The driving issue basically is that the industry has lost control of the message, which is a good thing. There was a time when the oilsands themselves were pretty much ignored outside of Alberta, but those times have come to an end. It’s the inability of the oil industry to grasp the nature of the changes and the social environment in which they are operating." How do you begin to search for information when you are covering the Alberta oil sands? 8/20 specifically mentioned online or web sources. Corporate websites
Environmental organizations’ websites
Academic studies
Government reports
Media archives 6/20 mentioned personal contacts as an important source of information. Company spokespersons
Academic experts
Investment bankers
Financial analysts 6/20 mentioned media releases. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)
Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI)
The Pembina Institute
Greenpeace Online Sources of Information What percentage of your research on the Alberta oil sands would you estimate is done online? "I would never report on something that I found online unless I confirmed with a person I interview." “If you’re going to actually write a story, you’ve got to get people most of the time. For some stories sources won’t even answer the phone unless you show them you know you know what you’re talking about.” How important are sources from other media stories:
Only 3/19 cited it as extremely important. How important are previous contacts as sources? 17/20 reported that previous contacts are very or extremely important. Importance of Statistical Sources 10/20 say very or extremely important
7/20 say moderately important Do you have preferred “to go” sources for statistics? 15/20 mentioned federal and provincial government sources for statistics (these include Statistics Canada, Environmental Canada, National Energy Board (NEB), National Resources Canada, Alberta Energy, Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), and US sources such as Energy Information Administration.

11/20 mentioned statistics prepared by industry (7/11 named CAPP, 1 mentioned Oilsands group, 2 referred simply to corporate websites)

5/20 mentioned The Pembina Institute as a credible source 14/20 specifically mentioned up-to-date knowledge and data 10/20 mentioned honesty or candor 7/20 mentioned availability/accessibility as important What qualities do you look for in your industry sources? “There is an important part of the population that is skeptical about industry's ability to solve these issues.” “I’ve found that sometimes you get strung along, and you were waiting and never had your request met, which is even more frustrating than being told ‘Oh, I’m sorry I can’t help you’.” 12/20 report other media is moderately or less than moderately important to them. Statistics 11/20 mentioned CAPP as a most reliable source 6/20 cited federal and provincial governments 5/20 mentioned Pembina Institute Mining Acitivities 13/20 use industry sources
9/20 cited federal or provincial sources for stats on mining
5/20 mentioned The Pembina Institute Tailings Ponds 10/20 mentioned industry: CAPP
Oil Sands Developers Association
Corporate websites
9/20 cited federal and provincial statistics
9/20 cited The Pembina Institute or other environmental sources Air Quality 13/20 cited federal/provincial governments
5/20 cited The Pembina Institute or other environmental organizations
2/20 academic sources
1 respondent mentioned Lakeland Industry & Community Association Water Use 13/20 used government statistics: Alberta Environment most mentioned
Alberta Sustainable Resources and Development
Federal government

11/13 mentioned using industry statistics for water use.

8/20 mentioned environmental groups: The Pembina Institute
Wood Buffalo Environmental Association
Watershed alliances and conservation groups
David Schindler at the University of Alberta Oil Sands Production 17/20 use industry statistics
4/20 use production statistics Land Disturbances 17/20 use Pembina Institute statistics
4/20 use federal and provincial government statistics
2/20 use industry statistics
1 respondent mentioned David Schindler
1 respondent mentioned land owners, fishermen, cabin owners Citizen Sources What qualities do you look for in your citizen sources? 7/20 respondents mentioned knowledge of the field.
7/20 respondents mentioned direct experience. “They need to offer first-hand, anecdotal colour” “Not just a knuckle-dragging loudmouth. You want people who can speak to the issue in a relatively credible and informed way.” “Practical stories that can explain how oil sands affects them in terms that people can understand.” “People don’t have billions of dollars behind them, so they’ve just got us to get their message across.” How do you locate your local citizen sources? 12/20 venture into various communities.
4/20 look at other media to see who is being quoted or check with blogs, newsletters, tweets and other social media sites.
3/20 mentioned advocacy groups, labour unions and aboriginal organizations. How do you locate your aboriginal citizen sources? 14/20 said band office and/or band websites 4/20 said you need to be on the ground rather than on the phone 1/20 said other news media, social media sites to see which aboriginal sources have been quoted before Desired Qualities: Advocacy Groups Face to Face with Sources How often do you meet sources in person when covering the Alberta oil sands? 7/20 Rarely
9/20 Sometimes
3/20 Often “Rarely, mostly talk on phone or via email. We typically qualify any electronic communications with words such as, “XXX said in an emailed statement.” VISITING THE OIL SANDS 13/20 have visited the oil sands 11/13 accessed industry sources and said they were the most important sources out there
9/13 accessed images and photos
8/13 accessed citizen sources
8/13 accessed statistical sources
7/13 accessed government sources “Industry was able to bring me inside the operation, and that’s great, but obviously they are giving me a one-sided story. We had to watch Suncor’s PR videos the whole time. You kind of expect that, though.” “The point of visiting the oil sands is experiential, not necessarily to access sources. Having a source is always good but visiting the oil sands is good just to be able to see the scale.” Academic Sources & Advocacy Group Sources Knowledge, accessibility, online access, communication skills, original research, verifiable data, intelligence, neutrality, peer reviewed research Academic Sources:
Two respondents said they wanted academics to be neutral
The only academic cited by name was University of Alberta Professor David Schindler. One cited his work as not “neutral” while another said “Schindler is pretty bang on, so far he’s batting 100, I think.”
One respondent quoted the 2010 Royal Society report as “an honest attempt by leading academics to sort out the issues.” While journalists see advocacy groups as different from academics, they also want advocacy groups to be able to back up their claims with valid research. “I wouldn’t say that an advocacy group should be written off just because they take a predictable position. Pembina Institute, for example, has a very good record of research.” “The important thing for me is stuff that’s legitimate. I have learned to weed through the rhetoric and be able to put out the numbers.” “It just goes to: do they know what they’re talking about, are they quotable, and do they answer the phone?” What makes a source not useful to you? 15/20 reported that sources are not useful if they simply push an agenda or point of view that is not backed up by evidence.
3/20 said sources who don’t respond quickly. Not Useful? spin rhetoric lying calls not returned lack of quality information “All requests about oil sands are routed through the PMO [Prime Minister's Office].” “Groups that are so cast in stone are relatively useless, in my mind.” Environmental Reporting 16/20 report on the environment What are your sources for environmental stories? 8/20 The Pembina Institute
7/20 industry sources
5/20 government sources
3/20 academic sources
2/20 Aboriginal sources
1/20 private sector consultants
1/20 Andrew Nikiforuk’s work Journalists’ Reflections on Preferred Sources Most respondents named more than one preferred source. 6/20 named academic sources
6/20 mentioned environmental groups such as the Pembina Institute
5/20 named government sources
4/20 named industry sources
3/20 referred to credible, balanced or participating sources without citing specific organizations
2/20 named other media as a preferred source
1/20 mentioned Google Alerts “Companies themselves, when the news is specific to them. CAPP when it's more broad. Pembina Institute when it's to do with the environment. Alberta Energy, Alberta Environment, ERCB, NEB or others if it applies.” “Basically there are people who are for the oil sands and people who are against the oil sands and people who are affected by it. That’s the thing I go for.” “I prefer senior executives; the decision-makers. The corporate spokespersons for the company’s area are generally not good. There are some consultants; the analyst community for the companies are good.” Which sources are most credible? 9/20 said this varied according to the focus of the story they were writing.
6/20 cited academic sources as the most credible. “None of them are completely credible. They all have their agenda, and as we know with the oil sands, there’s a huge amount of misinformation on all sides.” “It’s important to distinguish within groups and understand their constituencies—Greenpeace vs. Pembina (very different audiences). I’ve become skeptical of the provincial government, especially in light of their forceful PR campaign on Keystone XL, but the same can be said of many of the environmental groups such as Natural Resources Defense Council.” How often to you contact spokespersons when writing stories about the oil sands? 8/20 Always
5/20 Often
2/20 Sometimes
3/20 Rarely or Never How often are you able to access senior decision makers within industry, government when reporting on Alberta oil sands? 10/20 Sometimes 5/20 Often 4/20 Rarely or Never Are you able to speak to Alberta government ministers, such as the environment minister or energy minister? 10/20 Often 2/20 Sometimes 5/20 Rarely 2/20 said they didn't need to Have you ever made a Freedom of Information [FOI] request when covering the Alberta oil sands? 7/20 said yes All who made FOI requests (7/7) said the information was a very useful source. “I’ve got 300 pages of solid gold.” What Journalists like about Covering Oil Sands 13/20 respondents said that they like covering the oil sands because they have such national and international significance. 4/20 respondents said they like this story because of the tension between energy issues and environmental issues. 3/20 said the oil sands are interesting to cover because almost everything that happens in Alberta is connected to them. 2/20 respondents said they like the technology aspects of the oil sands story. 1 respondent said he/she was neutral about covering the oil sands. 1 respondent said he/she hated covering the oil sands. “There’s no other project like this in the world, and it's history in the making, and you are watching this all come about.” “It’s everything: a social issue, it’s an environmental issue, it’s a business issue, it’s a community issue.” "It is one of the greatest issues of our time, inside Canada and outside Canada. So you know you are working something that’s vitally important and you know people are going to pay attention to what you produce." "The prospect of expansion versus environmental stewardship, the huge investments being planned, impending climate and energy policies on a national and international level." "You could almost draw a line to oil sands and energy policy in this province and it’s almost at the heart at everything that happens." “I hate this story. It’s a terrible story, it’s important but there’s no direction or progression. It reminds me of softwood lumber. That’s why Keystone has made the topic a bit more interesting. There’s no substantive opposition to them in Canada. It’s not like the NDP has enough opposition.” What information or sources do you wish you had that you don’t? 6/20 respondents wanted more access to government officials or they would like the federal and provincial government to provide more data on the oil sands, particularly on environmental issues.

4/20 respondents said they would like decision makers in the oil sands industry to be more open and available. As with other questions some respondents felt they weren’t getting the whole truth from industry spokespeople. One respondent said he/she would like more access to foreign companies’ records of oil sands investments.

4/20 respondents said they would like an “insider” who can provide them with the detailed information about what the industry, government and environmental organizations are doing and talking about behind the scenes.

3/20 respondents said they would like an independent agency to provide an on- line clearing house of all statistical information about the oil sands. Journalists wanted access to: Chinese oil companies, government officials, complete catalogue, anonymous sources, a central clearing house of data, company ownership information, and a one stop shop for oil sands statistics. What are the untold stories of the Alberta oil sands? 14/20 said there are stories about the oil sands that are not being told
7/14 mentioned environmental issues: damage from tailing ponds, water contamination, environmental monitoring, impact of excel sulphur produced, renewable energy, post carbon future
4/15 mentioned science and technology issues
4/14 mentioned local, national, and international ramifications of oil sands development
2/14 mentioned health issues
2/14 mentioned work site and occupational health and safety issues What sources would you need to tell those stories? forward thinking analysts academics government consultants ex-employees who have gone rogue industry research witnesses aboriginal workers regulators scientists people on the ground in Fort McMurray “People don’t want to say anything, because if they say something, there goes there job. You get great stories , but you’re never going to get anybody on the record saying anything.” “The quality of research (at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta) is very good and there’s been major changes being made.” “The contribution being made to the province and to the country, as a whole, I don’t think is being told.” Maps & IMAGES image courtesy of: Pembina Institute What are some of your key concerns when selecting images to accompany stories about Alberta oil sands? “That it presents a balanced image, which unfortunately most of the images are of what the industry is not going to be, and that’s mining. You can write an in-situ story, and I’ve seen it many times … they end up running a mining picture.” Does your organization choose stock images or shoot original images or footage when portraying stories about with the Alberta oil sands? 4/20 use both original and stock images
4/20 create their own photos, graphics etc.
2/20 use only stock images
9/20 N/A All journalists work in English language media in Canada Janice Paskey: Associate Professor, Journalism
Gillian Steward: Instructor, Journalism
Mount Royal University, Calgary, Alberta, Canada Not one journalist covers the oil sands full time Most journalists were on trips paid for by industry or government What happens with excess sulphur What it’s like to work in the oil sands What a post carbon future looks like Wildlife lost to tailings ponds How oil sands affect Canada image courtesy of: Pembina Institute Shipping oil by rail How oil sands affect the US Contaminants in the river system Occupational health stories Good sustainable efforts by oil companies R&D research Conclusions Journalists want:
A one-stop shop for oil sands information
Peer reviewed information
Access to sources
Knowledgeable sources This study was financed by the OSRIN, the Oil Sands Research Information Network Principal Investigator: Co-Author: Research Assistants: Presentation Designer: Janice Paskey, Associate Professor, Journalism,
Mount Royal University, Calgary, jpaskey@mtroyal.ca Gillian Steward, Instructor, Journalism, Mount Royal University, Calgary, gsteward@mtroyal.ca Susan Mate & Laura Lushington Jennifer Friesen 11 people said that 70-100% of their research is done online A study of 300 articles about the oil sands that appeared in 3 major Canadian newspapers found that most of the stories had an economic focus and used representatives of business interests as their primary sources.(Way, 2011) Are you responsible for choosing maps to accompany your stories? 12/20 said no
4/20 said yes
2/20 said they don’t use maps Mining In-Situation image courtesy of: Nexen Inc. image courtesy of: Syncrude Canada Ltd. www.osrin.ualberta.ca Look at 10 minutes of key findings from a 2012 study of how Canadian journalists choose sources when reporting on the Alberta oil sands.
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