Myths as news

Public relations often masters reporters

Though a referendum on the solar power issue has been removed from Nevada’s ballot, anti-solar messages are still being run. They attack two firms that left Nevada after the state Public Utilities Commission undercut home solar. Subsidy claims in the commercials are challenged by PUC critics.

Though a referendum on the solar power issue has been removed from Nevada’s ballot, anti-solar messages are still being run. They attack two firms that left Nevada after the state Public Utilities Commission undercut home solar. Subsidy claims in the commercials are challenged by PUC critics.


On Aug. 11, Fox News reporter Claudia Cowan posted a report that included these words: “Until now, Nevada homeowners subsidized roughly 17,000 customers with solar panels, to the tune of about $16 million every year. This was done under a program known as net metering, which reimbursed residential energy customers for excess power generated by their rooftop panels.”

Cowan’s report included a statement from Nevada Public Utilities Commission chair Paul Thomsen: “As the rooftop solar industry has gotten larger and larger, we’ve seen this subsidy grow. What started as a legislative policy to kickstart the industry—now, 18 years later, it’s time for that industry to stand on its own two feet.”

What Fox failed to report is that there is considerable doubt that the subsidy exists (“Who’s subsidizing whom?” RN&R, June 2). Indeed, a study commissioned by Thomsen’s own agency suggests that regular utility customers are being subsidized by net metering customers, not the other way around.

In fact, until now, only a study by the utility itself—Warren Buffett’s monopoly NV Energy—claimed that net metering customers were being subsidized by non-solar customers. Buffett and his public relations people for months have been pushing the subsidy claim with so much success that many journalists have reported the subsidy as fact.

And the PUC’s own study has been quoted against the PUC so often that it ordered up another study by the same company—Energy and Environmental Economics Inc.—that has reached opposite conclusions. The new study argues there is a shift of perhaps $36 million a year onto nonsolar customers.

Critics of the PUC say the new study’s methodology does not have the same rigor as the original study. They call the new study “an incomplete document with no peer-review or participation from stakeholders,” in the words of Nevada Conservation League Education Fund director Andy Maggi. “The draft study contrasts with studies from the same firm and studies that have been published in recent months that show no such cost shift and indeed, savings for all electrical rate payers.”

“The initial PUCN report included a robust stakeholder process, and this updated report should do the same,” said Vote Solar spokesperson Jessica Scott. “The study is still underway, and we expect that a thorough peer-reviewed analysis will help shed light on the flaws of this preliminary report.”

The new study aside, the way an unsubstantiated claim of a subsidy was reported widely as fact is a case study in the way public relations people can embed dubious information in public debate. Thanks to Buffett’s operations—he wants an end to net metering in favor of traditional large plant facilities—subsidies of solar customers at the expense of non-solar customers have been reported as fact from coast to coast, though state studies in five states (Vermont, Mississippi, Minnesota, Maine, Nevada) have found otherwise, with only one state study (Louisiana) supporting the Buffett claim.

PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-winning fact-checking entity, rated television commercials that make the subsidy claim “half true.”

Public policy myths, when uncorrected by journalists and public officials, can cause enormous damage—financial and otherwise—and spark new laws. The spread of the false notion that autism is caused by vaccines has caused some parents to avoid immunizing their children, reducing herd immunity in schools and endangering students. The widespread but inaccurate belief that state tobacco settlement funds had to be used for health care resulted in other worthy programs losing funds. Reports by gullible journalists in 1986 that crack cocaine was “instantly addicting” led to enactment of numerous state and federal laws that made drug and criminal justice problems worse.

How does information that is in dispute get reported widely as fact?

Bob Felten, a University of Nevada, Reno journalism professor in the strategic communications field, has been in both roles—a reporter and a public relations person. He says there is a series of factors that get dubious information treated as reliable. First is the reduction in reporting staffs.

“That’s been well documented, and people talk a lot about that,” he said. “One of the impacts is having less time to do the work.”

Then there is the pressure to feed 24-hour news.

“You get into an environment where you are so quick to report right now that it’s very, very difficult to research the background of whatever it happens to be.” (The italics were in Felten’s tone of voice.)

Then there is the disappearance of “the desk.”

“I would also suggest to you that another thing that has happened is that the middle rank of copy editors and newsroom people is almost completely gone,” he said. “They would have said, ’How do you know this? Who said this? What is the attribution?’”

There is also the reporting fault commonly called false equivalency. Sometimes both sides don’t have the same credibility or legitimacy, but some journalists strain to create it, anyway.

“One of those sides really is not equivalent,” Felten said. “The great example is global warming. To say that ’on the one hand, and then on the other’ is not an accurate way to present information around that issue.”

And finally there is the force behind the scenes.

“There are people who have an interest in perpetuating whatever information you’re talking about,” he said.

If that’s the direction journalism is going, it doesn’t portend a great future for the field. But Felten said journalism education is aware of all those problems and is now training young, aspiring journalists to guard against the factors that distort.

“I do think I teach in a place where there’s constant conversation about these issues and the importance of taking that extra step, that extra effort to present an accurate picture,” Felten said. “The journalism that will survive will be better at dealing with those issues.”

He pointed to a recent long-term reporting project of Mother Jones that resulted in major reporting about the conditions in a federal private contract prison.

“The effort it took to do that reporting and the time it took and the commitment Mother Jones made may have had some impact on the Obama decision to do something about private prisons,” he said.

And that kind of reporting also appears to be the kind people will pay for. “If you believe in this kind of reporting, send money” is the pitch.