Josh Fox recently released a new short titled The Sky Is Pink on Vimeo. Known for his Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland, Fox was arrested earlier this year for trying to record a Congressional hearing on fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, a process that injects water and chemicals into the ground in order to release the natural gas buried therein.
Gasland drew press attention and scathing industry critiques for its representations of fracking and its effects. The memorable scene of a man lighting the water coming from his faucet on fire appeared throughout the media, and it even inspired a CSI episode. The natural gas industry started an aggressive counter-campaign trying to correct the claims made in Gasland, with the American Natural Gas Alliance creating a website section titled The Truth about Gasland. The industry even published a blog post attempting to rebut this short, titled The Sky is Blue: Setting the Record Straight.
In The Sky Is Pink, Fox takes the possibility of New York state passing legislation to allow fracking as the starting point to revisit some related issues and go into depth on some others. A powerful point he makes comes back to the safety of the fracking process. While pressured water gets injected into the ground to release the gas, that water contains a variety of chemicals as well. For an outside example, a 2011 report from the Democratic Committee on Energy & Commerce listed chemicals such as benzene and methanol, as well as citric acid, instant coffee, and salt. While the coffee and salt might not seem so bad, the benzene has been linked to cancer. Further, the report indicated that some chemicals remain unknown or unreleased due to “proprietary reasons.” (This report was attacked for being a partisan document meant to support the EPA by some industry groups.)
The fracking process happens through cement-encased wells, which in theory should hold these chemicals apart from the surrounding environment. In The Sky Is Pink, Fox cites several documents from the industry itself that show how the cement around the wells sometimes fails to contain the chemicals. As a result, these chemicals end up in the water supply, contaminating it and posing dangers to those receiving it in their homes and drinking it.
While this short makes accessible a very complicated set of issues, Fox also makes a key point about the discourses surrounding these issues, particularly the media and industry discourses, and how we as audiences need to consider these discourses and their sources carefully. He explains how a “debate” gets constructed in the media. Traditionally, a debate is an exchange of ideas among two or more parties, but sometimes the “debates” we see represented in the media present one side, then the other, and then… that’s it. No exchange occurs — just point, counterpoint, done.
Another aspect to consider is the actual points being asserted. Fox’s title comes from an example put forth by Doug Shields, former Pittsburgh city council president and member. While one side might claim that the sky is blue, another side might claim that the sky is pink. Those competing claims represent no debate, just two viewpoints, yet these claims become media fodder and supposedly raise questions about the validity of certain arguments.
What might be missing from these viewpoints, though, is how they were developed. What facts are cited? What methods were used to arrive at those viewpoints? What efforts went into the study? Who conducted them? Did the company using the information conduct it, or did another company or government agency do it? Who paid for the study? Do any other studies confirm or contradict this information?
Another important factor to consider is who makes the claims. Fox intercuts comments from Tom Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor and paid lobbyist, with comments from Anthony Ingraffea, an established scientist with more than 35 years of teaching and research experience who works with the Cornell Fracture Group. Their credibility and authority in representing this information become a key question to consider. Where do they get their information? What are their motivations for making those claims?
Further, the means the information gets relayed to audiences becomes a point to question. A short documentary such as this one with Fox serving as the key voice and investigator provides just one possibility even for documentary. A documentary without a visible host or investigator might rely on disembodied voiceover narration, making for a very different documentary experience. A third option might replace narration with intertitles and rely more on talking heads to make its point.
Even within these contexts, how does information get highlighted, elided, or skewed? During the opening commentary with Ridge, which is actually archival footage from The Colbert Report, Fox adds a title that reads, “Speaking as a governor,” thus calling into question Ridge’s authority on the issues. Consider how different that sequence might play out had Ridge been interviewed on CNN or on Fox News or if Fox had left that title out.
(For those of you familiar with the basic tenets of news gathering, the underlying questions here should sound familiar: What? Who? Where? When? How? Why?)
But The Sky Is Pink shows how these environmental and policy issues are more complicated than even these basic questions. Facts alone fail to explain the complicated processes and impacts of hydraulic fracturing. Even the science — grounded in process, logic, and reason — gets called into question, not to mention the motivated interests of industry, government, and advocacy. And even ad hominem attacks — just read the commentary on Fox’s short — come into play.
So how do we as audiences begin to form our own opinions on matters? Access multiple sources, not just one media outlet. Move beyond media sources into industry groups, government groups, advocacy groups, and even academic groups such as the Cornell one above. Consider carefully how these groups get their information, present their information and their interests, and present the information of others. Be patient as this process takes time, as with each new idea comes another whole set of issues and considerations.
In the end, though, make up your own mind based on this research, and not on a viewpoint presented in one media story or by one expert. Look for the bigger picture, not at just one piece of the puzzle.