Life’s A Gas

To be honest, I didn’t expect much from the readings that we were assigned to examine. I mean, the natural gas boom in Texas? Why do I care? It certainly didn’t sound as an interesting subject. Then it turned out that these were arguably two most amazing pieces of journalism that I’ve read at least in the last week. So much for low expectations.

We were asked to analyze how the stories are framed — and compare those framings. For I don’t want my post to be as long as any of these stories, I decided to split my observations in several parts and analyze each component of a story separately. And here we go.

The headline of the CPI's story, which already provides some framing for it
The headline of the CPI’s story, which already provides some framing for it

1. Approach

The most vivid example of the difference between these two pieces is probably their headlines. They are also good illustrations of points of view that were chosen by reporters.

The title of Bryan Mealer’s story — “Y’all Smell That? That’s The Smell of Money” — is not just a quote, it is a quote from a journalist himself (in particular from the presentation he made at school in his youth when his family was prospering from the Texas oil boom). And to some extent that headline conveys the spirit of the story, which is told deliberately from a personal point of view. Mealer, who was born and raised in Texas and had a firsthand experience of a similar economic burst in the region in his childhood, turns reporting on the natural gas boom into his own adventure. The whole story is literally framed by Mealer’s reflections of his own experiences and aspirations — and he explicitly states that we look at what’s happening in Texas through his eyes by using a lot of I’s, me’s and relating to his own past and present.

The title of the CPI’s story — “Big Oil. Bad Air” — also perfectly sets the frame for it. “Bad” is a strong word, and even from the headline we can see that these guys are going to look into environmental downside of the gas boom. I guess, one could call this headline even judgemental. “Bid Oil. Bad Air” is a piece of an old-school (I mean it in a good way) investigative journalism which purpose is to make power accountable. The journalists try to present the facts using lots of data and evidence. Basically, they say: this is the truth that someone’s is trying to cover up — and our job is to reveal it with our reporting.

2. Writing

The best way to compare the writing style of two pieces is just to juxtapose some words that are used by reporters.

Mealer’s story: Bonanza. Glorious reinvention. Revelation. Festooned. Faster than the hand of God. Heck (as an exclamation that indicates author’s excitement).

CPI’s story: Bacchanal. Pungent odors. Littered. Hell-bent rush. Leave to fend for themselves. Prepared statement (by a corporation whose representatives declined to be interviewed by journalists).

I think, these words speak for themselves. You can rightly guess about the attitude that reporters have towards their subject just by looking at them.

It is also worth noting, however, that, as different as these pieces are, they bear a strong resemblance in terms of structure. Both Mealer and the authors of the CPI’s piece certainly know one of the most important rules of reporting: always present both sides of the story, always have a second opinion. And they do present a second side — but only towards the end of a story, when a reader (presumably) already has an opinion on what it’s about. The downsides of the gas boom aren’t mentioned in Mealer’s story until its 21st page (out of 24). Ordinary people who actually benefited from it appear only in the last scene of the CPI’s story.

3. Visuals

Here, I think, an illustration works best, too.


On the left: one of the photographs used by the Texas Monthly. Again, even without reading a story one could probably deduce something from it: it’s a guy who achieved something and he’s proud of his success. What’s even more important, probably, is that he hasn’t achieved too much and isn’t too proud; there’re no pictures of the corporate CEOs who enjoy a luxurious lifestyle thanks to the gas boom in the story. Most of the portraits presented in Mealer’s story convey such a feeling: here’s some ordinary people who are blessed by this economic miracle. And even landscapes are epic, colourful and monumental: this is an area the gas boom has sparked a new life in.

On the right: a photograph used in the CPI’s story. These people are obviously portrayed as victims. They are unhappy, and there’s someone to blame for their unhappiness. Moreover, the story persists in showing pictures of a woman with her inhaler, as if it wants us to feel her pain. Same could be said about other pictures in this story: beautiful fields and forests and ranches that are defaced by burning flares and gas wells.

4. Extras

The CPI’s story is also interestingly framed in terms of design (which is really good, by the way, especially for an investigative piece like this). For example, these big in-your-face pull quotes that sometimes appear next to the story definitely contribute to its overall tone. The way the quote from a State Rep. Harvey Hildebran — “I believe if you’re anti-oil and gas, you’re anti-Texas” — is presented makes it even more presumptuous. And devilish animated flames from the flares don’t help you to fall in love with the gas boom.

As for the Texas Monthly piece, here we can see a really compromising use of advertising. Somewhere halfway through the story you’re starting to notice ads that try to sell you basically the same picture of growth, wealth and success that a reporter describes — and it certainly doesn’t make his words more credible.

An example of how ads are used in the Texas Monthly story
An example of how ads are used in the Texas Monthly story

5. Conclusion

I read the CPI’s piece first, and I was definitely prejudiced toward Mealer’s story. And my bias was growing bigger as I moved through the report with all its depictions of the gas boom’s “bonanza” and attempts to present South Texas as the land of opportunities.

However, at the end of the day, I enjoyed Mealer’s piece more. As strange as it is, it even seemed more objective to me — when Mealer finally starts to talk about the downsides of the boom, it gives the story a kind of sore feeling that stays there until the end. At first “Y’all Smell That?” seems an unchallenged ode to the gas boom, but than — well, I wouldn’t say that the story turns upside down, but it certainly becomes much more ambiguous, deep and meaningful.

As for the CPI’s story, it is more definitive and inconclusive at the same time . On one hand, reporters explicitly put the blame on corporations and government institutions, claim that they’re responsible for environmental implications of the boom and support their claim with both data and stories from witnesses. On the other, sometimes this support is too vague (for example, they rely on the opinions of unnamed “scientists” and “experts”, which is, I believe, something that a reporter should never do), and the story overall seems to be too finger-pointing — at times it resembles more an attorney’s speech than a news story.

That said, both of the stories are great, and even though Mealer’s piece appeals more to me in terms of writing style and structure, the CPI’s piece is no less — probably more — impressive and important, because it really helps to make power accountable and start a debate on the matter that can affect the lives on many people.


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