Opinion: Balance and Transparency: The Case for Enhanced Energy Journalism

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Developing energy policy and providing regulatory oversight over energy companies in Colorado is a nuanced and complicated process. By design, it is influenced by business, political interests and advocacy organizations.

To maintain some semblance of representative government, the system relies upon advocacy organizations tospeak forsegments of society and weigh-in on the potential impacts of policies and/or regulations. Many of these organizations work tirelessly on behalf of their members, constituents or target audiencesand provide helpfulinput on legislation and regulatory matters.

To many lawmakers, allowing laymen to actively participate in the process would gum up the works…This is where news media, comprised of experienced journalists, plays an important role. Aware of the issues at stake and the nuance involved in policy matters, reporters and editors know when important issues merit news coverage and the public’s attention.

This is the unapologetic system governments put in place in an effort to develop balanced public policy.In large part, it works. Butwhen it comes to complicated,science-oriented topicsand policy matterssuch as energy development,the general public islargelykept at arms-length.While public comment isencouraged and accepted, ordinary folksdon’t typicallyhave the expertise to credibly weigh-inwith a helpful opinion.Tomany lawmakers, allowinglaymen toactivelyparticipate inthe processwould gum up the works.

This is where news media, comprised of experienced journalists, playsan important role. Aware of the issues atstake and the nuance involved in policy matters, reporters and editors know when important issues meritnews coverage and the public’s attention.

This is where news media, comprised of experienced journalists, plays an important role. Aware of the issues at stake and the nuance involved in policy matters, reporters and editors know when important issues merit news coverage and the public’s attention.  

Butroughly twenty years ago,the oversight provided by localnewsmediastarted tocome up short.The decline of the display advertising business model led to layoffs of experienced journalists and created a void in robust coverage of energy topics.

Bythe mid 2000’s, corporations and advocacy organizationshad filled the void– some in response to declining traditional media. Colorado’s(ongoing)debate overhydraulic fracturing or“fracking”serves as a prime example.In 2013, executives at Noble Energy(now Occidental Petroleum)and Anadarko Energy(now Chevron)formedColoradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED)andProtect Coloradoto educate citizens about the process,and gauge voter opinions and behavior.The two corporations hiredPac-West– a PR firm with experience managing public affairs surrounding the timber industry in the Pacific Northwestto oversee and manage the advocacy effort. Soon, CRED-developed advocacy information blanketed the airwaves and other forms of media.

A formeroilexecutive involved in the creation of CRED admitted to methe companies formedthe organization, in part, because accurate information about the processjust wasn’t getting through in an environmentof newsmedia decline.

Today,new digital tools allowcorporations and organizations across the political spectrum toquicklydevelop and presentan abundance ofcontentcapable of rivaling– in style, quality and quantity – content produced by many of the nation’s best news organizations.While thecontent typically representsa particular point of view, itoften lookslike real news andisproduced with resourcesthatoftenfar exceededthoseavailable to manylocal newsrooms.

Today social media allowsthe slickly-producedcontentto be widely distributed to target audiencesinclined to engageor embrace a particular point of view. The era of unbiased, independent journalism—produced by experienced journalists–isn’t gone, but to find it, you must wade through a morass of information designed to manipulate as much as it informs.

With the help of several important journalism organizations and foundations, there are encouraging signs journalism mayyetfind a way forward.Journalism organizations such as the Institute for Nonprofit News and Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers are now providing journalists with much-needed business training. New funding strategies have led to the development of niche journalism products such as the nonprofit, education-focused publicationChalkbeat – a daily-read for parents, educators and lawmakers interested in education issues.

And so, we offer up the energy-focused nonprofit news organization Empowering Colorado. Funded through grants, donations and revenue streams from an array of non-editorial servicesrelated to communications and data analysis, the organization offers a solution to the need for fact-based energy information to balance advocacycontent. The organization also offers an opportunity to build a deep bench of energy reporters to complement the work of a select group of Colorado-based energy journalists such as Mark Jaffe and Allen Best — who have both graciously contributed their time and expertise to the development of Empowering Colorado.

A deep bench of energy journalists will play an important oversight role as Colorado transitions to cleaner sources of power necessary to combat climate change. The transition is already forcing policymakers to make hard choices as they work to mitigate the impacts of these new policies on communities and businesses — while also providing equitable access to energy resources to low-income citizens

For this reason, the publicshouldno longer be kept at arm’s length.Journalism has an important oversight role to play in the policymaking process – particularly in light of the radical changes underway in both energy and communications.

Advocacy content will always have its placeand should be viewed as an important part of the information equation. Butit should not dominate our information ecosystem and should be balanced by local energy journalism — whose decline, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Communication, has contributed to the public’s shift to partisan news sources.

Aspolicymakers, advocates and community leaders work to addressesissues related to climate change and theenergy transition,they may find the process goes more smoothly whencitizens are informed and journalists independently – and with expertise — vet and balance advocacy information.

These same policymakers may also discover thelack ofquality energy journalismin Colorado may be the most importantenergyissueof them all.

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