NYT Corrects 'Fracking' Story: 'Few' Cases of Water Contamination, Not 'Numerous'

May 18th, 2011 12:53 PM

People who approach an issue with certain beliefs are generally less likely to check claims that comport with those beliefs. It's called confirmation bias. Observe: Tuesday's New York Times carried this correction, highlighted by John Hinderaker at Powerline:

An article on May 7 about the Obama administration's appointment of a panel of experts to find ways to make hydraulic fracturing safer misstated the prevalence of cases in which fluids from the gas drilling process have been proven to have contaminated drinking water. There are few documented cases, not numerous ones, although federal and state investigations into reports of such incidents are continuing.

In other words, hydraulic fracturing is not, by and large, a danger to drinking water supplies. Since potential dangers to drinking water are integral to virtually every argument mounted against the practice, the incidence of contamination is crucial to the debate.

While it's nice to see the Times correct the record, this information is not hard to come by, and so this correction really should not have been necessary. The mistake seems to point to a classic instance of confirmation bias: layers of Times editors didn't think to check the claim, probably because it aligned with preconceived notions on the dangers of hydraulic fracturing.

It's also worth noting that given the large economic impact of expanded natural gas drilling, the fact that the dangers of "fracking" are exactly the opposite of what the Times initially reported, a small, little-read correction item will not do much to fix the damage done from the misinformation put out by the initial false report.