Texas Tech University

Research Feature - Hydraulic Fracking Communication - Dr. Erik Bucy & Dr. Amber McCord

Joseph Marcades

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is a controversial but increasingly common drilling method. Although proponents say it its both an effective and lucrative way to extract oil and gas from the Earth, the technique has been banned in certain states and countries over concerns about its environmental impacts.

Acceptance of the practice depends on region, and public opinion—and public understanding—of the issue varies. Uncertainty still surrounds this relatively new production practice. While workers in the oil and gas industry may know a lot about the process, the general public is much less certain.

With this view of fracking as an emerging production technology, Dr. Erik Bucy, Regents Professor of Strategic Communication in Texas Tech's College of Media & Communication, and Dr. Amber McCord, an assistant professor of practice in the College's Department of Professional Communication, set out to study how people process images of hydraulic fracturing and the information that images of the process convey.

“Among other reasons, this study was motivated by a desire to understand public opinion about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and specifically the role that visual framing plays in shaping views of the process,” Bucy said. “We expected one's level of support—whether for, against, or undecided—would act as an important perceptual filter.” 

Bucy said most media studies about energy or the environment focus primarily on textual analysis of news coverage surrounding the topic while disregarding the images. The power of visuals in media coverage of politics is a primary focus of Bucy's research.  For this project, Bucy and McCord wanted to focus on the themes and responses that visual portrayals of fracking evoke and how images on their own can impact impressions people have about this topic.

To conduct this study, the researchers conducted a study that involved showing 250 participants an assortment of different types of images of fracking from national news outlets around the country. Bucy said this research produced more than 1,700 responses to the 40 images they had in their sample. In the analysis stage, McCord combed through the open-ended responses to find common themes.

The researchers grouped the images into different themes. The most prevalent themes to emerge in the analysis were environmental destruction, economic competitiveness, and human health. Less prevalent themes included image ambiguity, uncertainty, and idealized democracy.

Issue agreement was found to shape perceptions, such that supporters were more likely to offer comments about jobs and energy independence than opponents, and opponents were more likely to raise concerns about environmental destruction and human health, Bucy said.

A key takeaway from this research pertains to how news organizations select and use images of controversial issues in their news stories, McCord said. According to this research, people bring preexisting attitudes to the image interpretation process and may be skeptical of or misconstrue what an image is attempting to portray.

“Images do matter,” McCord said. “But when it comes to interpretation, preexisting attitudes are going to filter that information in a particular way. So really understanding, as a news organization, when we broadcast or publish visual depictions of charged issues to our audiences, the meaning that viewers assign to that information is going to vary significantly.”