*Note: another blog post brought you by graduate school! Too blessed to be stressed, everyone.
Take a look at two different articles on Texas’ natural gas boom, and chances are, you’ll be first be struck by the photographs. Both stories are visually stunning, even though they are printed in different platforms.
The piece in Texas Monthly, called “‘Y’all Smell That? That’s the Smell of Money’” has photographs taking up entire pages. You can see oil rigs and pump jacks juxtaposed in front of blank blank blue skies, or maybe a sunrise lighting the landscape in gold. It’s a compelling contrast–nature and machine, that is–and there’s something beautiful about it.
Now, turn to the piece from the Center for Public Integrity. The portraits are grim, people staring solemnly into the camera. One woman holds up the mask that helps her breath. Machines make an appearance in this photos too, but the sky is no longer painted in blue or gold; it looks more like mud than anything else. The Center for Public Integrity makes great use of multimedia on the web, showing different frames that move as you scroll down. There’s a horse galloping behind dead trees. There’s a rusty swing in an empty playground. The visitor can’t help but wonder, ‘where are the children?’ Perhaps the title of the story will clarify: “Big Oil, Bad Air.”
You don’t even need to read a single word before you realize that these two stories have very different takes on the oil boom.
…But you do decide to read the stories, after all, because you’re curious. Good. The differences don’t stop at the photos.
Bryan Mealer, the author of the Texas Monthly piece, does not just report the facts. He writes from the first person and doesn’t shy away from a literary style of narrative. Mealer begins with his own experiences with the oil boom as a child, but remains a part of the story arc throughout the duration of the article. It’s personal, but not self-indulgent, which adds to a sense of suspense.
Mealer interviews several people who have received the financial fruit of the boom–oil men, people who found work after years of being unemployed, others from the Hispanic town of Cotulla who finally saw money being poured into their schools. It’s a celebration economic prosperity! When Mealer does interview people who have been negatively affected by the boom, it seems to be more of an obligation or an afterthought. “Oh, by the way, this person lives in a tent. The wealth gap is growing increasingly large. But, you know, winners and losers, right?” This isn’t to say that Mealer’s story is completely without nuance, though. After he begins with story of his father losing his wealth after an oil boom, the whole article gives off a foreboding feeling that those indulging in oil-soaked cash are gambling with their livelihoods.
Let’s switch gears and consider the research piece from the Center for Public Integrity (CIP). It begins with an anecdotal lead too, but in a completely different manner. There’s a distance between the narrator and the subject–that’s called third-person narrative voice–and it gives a sense of authority over the entire article. Once you’ve finished the lead, you might notice something else that sets it apart from Mealy’s story: the content.
Sure, both are about the oil boom in Texas, but the CIP story (authored by three people) is focused on a consequence of the boom that Mealy barely mentions: the environmental impacts, both immediate and long-term. CIP is highly critical of the environment policies of both Texas and oil companies. Yet it manages to avoid moral judgment and prop up its sense of authority by providing statistics to back up its research. The article has breadth and depth, covering both the science between the detrimental environmental effects of the industry and the regulation of the industry (or lack thereof). CIP interviews numerous people suffering from the immediate health consequences of the oil boom. Further, any dissenting viewpoints seem only to be included in order to sharpen CIP’s own argument rather than offer a legitimate perspective.
But that’s all right, I think. CIP is not trying to avoid debate; on the contrary, they are trying to stir up objections from the dominant ideology. Plus, with such thorough research, CIP does make a convincing case.
So, which story is more persuasive? You should read them and decide for yourself, Reader. You could even learn something new.