June 5, 2023

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Eagle reporter fails objectivity test in story about earthquakes

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The Wichita Eagle reporter tasked with taking an allegedly unbiased look at climate change has once again allowed her biases to leak through in her reporting, this time on earthquakes.

On March 21, 2021 the Eagle published a story by Climate Change Reporter Sarah Spicer on a recent cluster of minor earthquakes in and around Wichita.

Spicer begins her piece with inflammatory language, at least implying that the Kansas oil and gas industry’s use of fracking was the cause of the quakes.

“After a series of earthquakes rocked Wichita in November and December, state regulators said the oil and gas industry was not to blame, giving the impression that the earthquakes were natural,” Spicer wrote, adding: “Now, the state’s senior seismologist says he’s 99% sure that’s not the case. More recently available data led Rick Miller, the senior scientist and seismologist at Kansas Geological Survey, to believe the earthquakes were caused by wastewater sent deep into the earth.”

But at the very end of the story, Spicer quotes Miller saying, “The data is not telling us anything yet….”

How can ‘data’ leads Miller to believe fracking caused the earthquakes if Miller says the data isn’t telling them anything yet?

Editorialist masquerading as a reporter

Spicer was hired as part of a grant from “Report for America,” which bills itself as non-partisan.  Their donors include the incredibly liberal Ford Foundation and Report for America is a subsidiary of the Ground Truth Project, another left-of-center nonprofit.

To be clear, some have accused the Sentinel of being partisan because our owner, Kansas Policy Institute, has a perspective — protecting constitutional rights, creating greater access to better educational opportunities, and helping people keep more of what they earn.  Mainstream media, however, is journalistically precluded from having a perspective in news coverage, and the Sentinel exists to hold media (and government) accountable.

Yet the Eagle made clear when they hired Spicer that only one point of view would be considered when reporting on Climate change, writing, “One reporter will be assigned to write about how climate change affects Kansas and the surrounding region. Most Kansans now believe in climate change, but about half do not believe man-made activities have contributed, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication,” and stating as fact that “climate change impacts are real.”

Scientist modifies protocol to prove his belief

Another Eagle reporter, Michael Stavola, reported last December that the Kelly Administration had concluded the quakes were not related to wastewater injection.

“Based on our investigation, KCC staff does not believe the seismicity in Wichita, Kansas is tied to any oil and gas activities in the area,” Ryan A. Hoffman, the Kansas Corporation Commission director of the conservation division, said in a news release.

Just two weeks ago, Miller told KWCH-TV that earthquakes in March were just a natural occurrence.

Again, Miller says he has no data to prove his belief, so he is changing the protocol for studying earthquakes.

After a “seismic event,” the Kansas Seismic Action Plan requires the state to look at the records of wastewater injection wells within 6 miles of the epicenter of the quake.

According to Stavola’s December story in the Eagle, that examination found no evidence tying the earthquakes to large water volume increases that occur in fracking.

“The investigation included looking at historical records for Arbuckle and Granite Wash injection wells within a 6-mile radius of the earthquake epicenters, checking for new drilling within 3 miles of the epicenters of the earthquakes and checks in the area to verify ‘compliance with permit conditions’ at the wells,” The Eagle reported. Five wells were in the 6-mile radius and none had recent volume increases, the report says. Also, no new wells were ‘recently completed within the area.'”

Later in that news story, Miller said he believes the earthquakes are a natural event on a fault line, letting off built-up energy.

“These sequences like this are going to happen and eventually they’re going to run out of energy … until some point in the future, maybe 100 years, before it comes active again,” he previously told The Eagle.

Miller said the actual drilling associated with fracking to extract oil or gas has been proven to lead to earthquakes in other areas, including Oklahoma, but not in Kansas.

Spicer’s story last week acknowledged that the KCC was unable to find any source within the six-mile range.  So now Miller is expanding the range beyond established protocol to try to ‘prove’ fracking is to blame.

“Now we’re looking further, saying ‘Okay well, what’s magic about 6 miles?” Miller said in the article. “The data is not telling us anything yet, but I can tell you that the earthquake pattern, the sequence of earthquakes, their pattern, their sizes — this is not matching the natural record.”

Six miles is the regulation, but Miller convinced both the KCC and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to voluntarily expand their search to 15 miles “to try to understand what caused the earthquakes.”

If there’s nothing “magical” about 6 miles, it is unclear exactly what would be “magical” about 15 miles.

Indeed, Miller admits in the story he intends to look until he does find something.

“We’re not moving on. No, we want to figure out what’s going on,” Miller said. “We need to know what’s going on and we’re not gonna stop looking until we try to figure it out or we exhaust all the data we can get.”

Little to no damage?

Early in the story, Spicer admits that the small quakes in Kansas are unlikely to cause much in the way of damage.

The largest in the series of last year’s quakes in Wichita was a mere 3.7 on the Richter Scale — very mild — and Miller said, unlikely to cause damage.

Miller told the Eagle that — generally speaking — a well-maintained structure is unlikely to see damage at anything less than a 5.0 magnitude quake, and some damage might be seen on a historic structure at around 4.0. Miller admitted he doesn’t expect to see anything over magnitude 4.5 in Wichita, and no greater than 5.5 in Kansas.

Not the first time Spicer abandoned objectivity

This is not the first time Spicer has left objectivity behind. In her very first column for the Eagle, Spicer made it clear she has a specific point of view — as the Sentinel reported back in July of last year.

“First and foremost, I believe in telling truthful and accurate stories and finding narratives from people, or in the case of climate change, animals, land and ecosystems, that otherwise don’t have a voice,” Spicer wrote. “We will learn from and use a wide range of sources and opinions, take a holistic approach to reporting on the problems and focus on actions that the government, nonprofits and individuals can make towards developing solutions.”

While “a wide range of sources and opinions,” would suggest opposing viewpoints would be considered, Spicer had already stated a need for “solutions” and the Eagle is on record saying only one viewpoint will be shown.

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