Wind power is one of the cheapest sources of electricity in the United States, and second only to solar in its popularity among Americans. Wind power is also a source of rapidly growing jobs. In fact, wind turbine technician is the second-fastest growing job in the US, just trailing the job of solar PV installer.
Given the wind industry’s growth, it’s entirely legitimate to take a look at how the rapid spread of large wind turbines is affecting host communities and wind farm neighbors — especially those who are not receiving a direct financial benefit from a nearby wind farm.
That’s what GateHouse Media’s extensive, recent series purports to do. They promote their work upfront by telling readers how they spent months investigating, endless days analyzing and reviewing documents, and speaking with dozens of homeowners living near wind farms.
But the series by the hedge fund–backed GateHouse Media fails to pass muster on three journalism basics, despite the outlet’s commitment to “deliver high-quality and trusted journalism.”
Flaw 1 – GateHouse Media provides no balance and no context. The series is based entirely on the experiences and complaints of a very small minority of homeowners living and working in and around wind turbines.
Flaw 2 – They create a false equivalency by cherry-picking experts to avoid the inconvenience of established, scientific consensus.
Flaw 3 – GateHouse Media ignores widely available facts and data that didn’t support the story’s premise.
The series ends up as a classic case of slanted framing and lopsided reporting. In less charitable terms, the series is a high-production hatchet job.
It is worth mentioning that the series was reported largely by a college student who was interning at GateHouse for the summer. According to that student writer, when she started on the story, she even said, “I had no idea what I was doing.” Still, it doesn’t excuse the rest of the senior GateHouse team from diverging from high journalistic standards that they are supposed to follow.
We’ll deal with the first of those flaws here, and the other flaws in future articles.
No Balance, No Context
GateHouse puts a great deal of emphasis on the scope of its interviews on the first screen of the series:
“[GateHouse] journalists compiled a list of over 450 families nationwide who spoke before state commissions and in legislative hearings. The reporters also spoke with 70 families.”
It sounds impressive, but this first description is a gross mischaracterization of the pool of families from which GateHouse conducted its interviews. Only later in its reporting does GateHouse indicate that the 450 families were entirely pulled from the pool of those who spoke in opposition to wind turbines in their communities — completely omitting anyone with a positive story to tell.
This guaranteed a lopsided story from the start. A series ostensibly on how wind farms affect their neighbors was built entirely on those who oppose them.
Then there is the stark problem of context. There are more than 20 million Americans living in counties with wind turbines. With over 52,700 wind turbines in America, GateHouse’s pool of 450 families who’ve made public complaints equates to less than 1 complaint per 100 turbines.
Even more damning is a three-year study by Berkeley Lab that was just released this month. It shows that:
Over 1.3 million homes in America are within 5 miles of a large wind turbine, yet there had not been a comprehensive effort to understand the attitudes of those who live in proximity to these turbines, or the effects of the turbines on those who live nearby.
Preliminary analysis from the three-year Berkeley Lab led effort finds that a large majority of individuals within 5 miles, and even within ½ mile, have positive attitudes toward the turbines in their community.
What’s striking about the findings is that even for those who live less than a half mile from a wind turbine, the number of those who have a “very positive” experience is double those who have had a “very negative” experience, and even greater than those who have had a “negative” and a “very negative” experience.
Before Berkeley’s new analysis was released, we could not find any credible analysis that counted the number of US families living near wind farms. However, the GateHouse series itself asserts that there are “thousands.” Commercial-scale wind turbines operate at 1,196 locations in America, and at a typical wind farm, they tend to be scattered over a few miles, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and GateHouse’s own reporting. If one makes the conservative assumption that at least 100 families live around each of those wind farms, that would be over 100,000 families. That means Gatehouse built an entire series asserting that wind farms were hurting people based on the complaints of less than 0.45% of people living near wind farms and interviews of fewer than 0.07% of them.
None of that means that experiences of people who say they have been affected by nearby wind turbines aren’t a legitimate subject for reporting, and it doesn’t mean their perspective shouldn’t be heard.
But by any basic standard of journalism fairness, the size of the pool of those concerned versus those potentially affected should have been reported — along with the positive experiences of the vast majority of wind farm neighbors. In the wind-dense congressional district of Iowa-3, support for wind energy ran at 91% in a 2016 poll by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research, and 89% of respondents wanted to continue expanding wind farms.
GateHouse’s refusal to report on the proportionality of unhappy vs. satisfied wind farm neighbors is all the more striking in light of contemporary (and easily available) measurements showing support in places like Texas, which has a quarter of all the installed wind power in America. A 2016 survey by Baselice & Associates and Echelon Insights found that 85% of people there want clean energy such as wind and solar to continue to be expanded.
In fact, GateHouse was flagged on this gross imbalance during its reporting by AWEA, which offered to connect GateHouse with landowners who were happy living with wind turbines near them. On the AWEA blog, Greg Alvarez says, “When offered positive accounts of wind farms in rural America, however, we were told [by GateHouse] they wouldn’t be included because the story of positive experiences had already been written.”
It seems safe to say that GateHouse also thought that the story of unhappy wind farm neighbors had not been told. Why else would it have devoted such time and attention to reporting their perspective?
It’s a curious justification, because the story of the very small minority of wind farm neighbors with complaints has also “already been written.” A lot.
A simple Google News search finds almost 65,000 URLs about “wind farm complaints.” Examples just in the past few months of stories that dwelt on the complaints include stories by Slate, the Des Moines Register, Kansas City webzine Flatland, and a series of stories by New York’s North Country Public Radio.
And, this GateHouse coverage has featured several of the families that are prominently featured in this large amount of preceding coverage. For example, there are 28 articles referencing and often quoting the Shineldeckers family of Mason County, Michigan. Some ran as early as April 2013.
Google News produces 117 articles – including ABC News and Boston Magazine – telling the Hobart family’s story, which the Gatehouse series also featured.
GateHouse chose to use family stories that had already been part of several prior news accounts by other outlets. We found this surprising, given the extent of the interviews GateHouse told its readers it had conducted.
We reached out to reporters Emily Le Coz and Lucille Sherman via email to ask why GateHouse thought prior coverage disqualified the views of pro-turbine neighbors when this extensive, prior coverage of complaints didn’t similarly disqualify the views of anti-wind farm neighbors. When asked about the research, I was told by Ms. Le Coz that “the documents and sources that informed our reporting” are linked in the report.
Bill Church, Senior Vice President of News, also did not comment for this story when we contacted him by email.
GateHouse also used the example of the Osage Nation in their story, but it does not report that the tribe said in legal filings that it opposed the wind farms not on nuisance grounds — but because it would interfere with tribal plans for fossil fuel extraction.
The tribe’s court challenge to the wind farms includes a complaint through the Osage Minerals Council. In it, the tribe asserts that it owns all minerals “in and under” Osage County, a “mineral estate” that contains “marketable amounts of oil and natural gas.” Extracting the oil and gas would entail construction of flow lines, something that the lawsuit contends would be inhibited by electrical lines, roads, and other necessary elements of the wind farm complex.
We are currently working on part two and part three of this series, looking at the how the research used created false equivalency between anti-wind experts and the scientific community, and looking further into how established wind farm facts were ignored to create an incomplete picture of residents’ experiences about living near wind farms.