Tips for reporters covering natural resources extraction

by Andrea Arzaba
Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics

When an untapped source of oil, gas or other natural resource is discovered, communities are often overjoyed to learn about their new source of wealth.

This wealth, however, may also become a source of corruption and conflict, as developers, politicians and others battle over who will benefit. Too often, a lack of media coverage of the industry simply makes the problems worse, said Anya Schiffrin, author of the handbook “Covering Oil: A Reporter's Guide to Energy and Development”.

Schiffrin, who directs Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs' specialization in international media, advocacy and communications, has conducted extensive research on news coverage in oil-exporting countries. Her team's research shows that large corporations frequently fail to share data on their work as their mining or drilling projects progress. The research also found a shortage of journalists who have the technical knowledge needed to report on the industry, which reduces the frequency of coverage. Meanwhile, governments repress information, and multinational companies challenge the quality of the coverage that does appear.

Schiffrin shared her findings at the recent Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Rio de Janeiro. Later, she talked with IJNet and shared the following tips on how reporters can improve their coverage of the industry.

Study up on the industry

“These are very complicated stories, and in a lot of the countries where the extraction of gas and mining is taking place, journalists aren’t necessarily trained,” Schiffrin noted. She suggests keeping an eye open for training opportunities with local NGOs, which increasingly offer training for journalists on the topic. In Africa, for example, the Revenue Watch Institute offers training for journalists in Ghana, Republic of Guinea, Tanzania and Uganda.

Also check out online courses. Coursera’s Energy 101 or UNITAR’s The Governance of Extractive Industries are good starting points.

Get more than one or two sources

“In many African newspapers, we found out that the journalists covering extractives are only using one source or maximum two sources," Schiffrin said. She urges reporters to cast a broader net by searching online for new sources.

Anonymous sources play a central role in some stories on the extraction industry, since sources may worry about potential legal action or harassment by the large corporations that extract oil, gas or minerals. Schiffrin notes that if a reporter needs to use an anonymous source, the story should explain why.

Look for and use open data

Data sets on mining and oil companies can be used to help create a better understanding of many complex situations. And while some companies are loathe to share their data, the European Union and the United Nations are making recommendations that companies issue more information “about the payments that they make, as well as to open their arbitration processes,” Schiffrin said. If the companies follow these recommendations, there should be a wealth of extraction data in the near future.

Visit the mining or drilling sites

While it’s an investment of time and money, visiting the site rather than reporting from afar adds depth to your reporting. Schiffrin pointed to exemplary coverage from Australian, Norwegian and U.S. journalists of the extraction industry in Africa, such as Sahara Reporters.

Do cross-border investigations

When journalists know how to access and use worldwide data, building more accountable governance across the extractives industry will be easier. According to Schiffrin, the Internet makes it easier for journalists not only to maintain relationships with other journalists in different countries but also to look at and compare global data.

The Compare the Map Project was developed “to create graphical tools that allow a user to eye-ball possible correlations between extractives data and development statistics,” Schiffrin said.

In countries where the media are often repressed, journalists may be afraid to publish those stories locally. But international collaboration can make these stories available for a wider audience.

Read Schiffrin’s collaborative paper, “Covering Oil: A Reporter's Guide to Energy and Development” here.

Andrea Arzaba is a Mexico City-based journalist.

Photo via with a Creative Commons license.