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Worldwide science-related misreporting brings unearned ugliness to North Carolina town

"If not for the handful of public comments about solar farms stealing sunshine, Woodland’s solar moratorium would be as obscure as other local fights."

Science’s stakeholders focus regularly on the quality of science-related reporting. What about journalists who get the science and engineering right, but in their pro-science and pro-environment zeal end up penalizing innocent people by grossly misreporting not about technoscience but about technopolitics?

On 22 December, I drove to northeastern North Carolina to find out firsthand what to make of the recent international media infamy of the tiny rural town of Woodland. It’s been mocked and maligned as an exemplar of goofball redneck antiscience and energized hostility to clean, renewable energy. What I found was that a small minority of media reports have been correct: The town’s 3 December rejection of a fourth solar-energy facility resulted merely from NIMBY—the not-in-my-back-yard response seen commonly in civic decision making.

But then there’s the majority of media reporting from around the world about the Woodland town council’s zoning decision. Those reports falsely elevate to the status of town policy a few unscientific and deplorably silly comments made in a public hearing. The Huffington Post article “Solar farm rejected amid fears it will ‘suck up the sun's energy,’” for example, based its opening sentence on the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy—the error of presenting mere sequentiality as causality. The sentence said, “A town council in North Carolina rejected plans to rezone land for a solar farm after residents voiced fears it would cause cancer, stop plants from growing and suck up all the energy from the sun.”

The opening sentence in a New York Daily News article proclaimed, “This town is not too bright about solar panels.” Another at Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald opened, “World leaders in Paris may have lauded the future of renewable energy, but in small-town America, all that solar hocus-pocus is still viewed with a healthy dose of slack-jawed cynicism.” Next in that piece came the post hoc fallacy: “The good burghers of Woodland, North Carolina, have successfully torpedoed plans for a solar farm, arguing the panels would suck up all the sun's energy, cause cancer and drive young people out of town.” The Hindustan Times joined in the false reporting. A subhead at the South African snickered, “Yup, there are folks out there who actually believe that solar panels are draining the sun of its energy and as such have decided that their town won’t host such devilry.”

In the UK’s Telegraph, a headline charged, “US town opposes solar power for ‘extremely stupid’ reasons.” The UK’s Mirror also ridiculed Woodland—including with an illustration showing a slovenly rustic sarcastically labeled a “bright spark”—but didn’t even get the geography right. The Mirror placed Woodland not in North Carolina but in Alabama.

In the frenzied fun of scorning imagined hicks while not bothering to ascertain facts, the publication Ars Technica lapsed disappointingly from its usual high standard. Under the headline “North Carolina citizenry defeat pernicious Big Solar plan to suck up the Sun,” the article began with an unmerited combination of sarcastic scorn and faux-redneck diction:

The citizens of Woodland, N.C. have spoken loud and clear: They don't want none of them highfalutin solar panels in their good town. They scare off the kids. “All the young people are going to move out,” warned ... a local resident concerned about the future of his burg. Worse, [he] said, the solar panels would suck up all the energy from the Sun.

But, in fact, that was merely one citizen saying something deplorably silly at the end of a months-long civic examination of the proposal, which was to add a fourth industrial-scale solar facility to the edges of a town so tiny that it covers only slightly more than 1 square mile.

Ars Technica also failed on basic fact-checking. Its final paragraph began by reporting that the town council’s decision to suspend consideration of future such facilities “seemed to please the residents evidently tired of Big Solar’s relentless intrusion into their community.” The conclusion continued,

One resident ... said her home was surrounded by solar farms and has lost its value. That led Ars to the satellite view of Woodland on Google Maps, to see if we could verify the veracity of [her] claims. This publication will not look the other way as Big Solar attempts to railroad the good citizens of small-town America. Alas, when we looked at the satellite view we didn’t see any sign of solar farms as we perused the verdant fields and woods of the aptly named Woodland.

Of course they saw no sign. Only one of the already approved three facilities has begun construction. It’s now being built in the open field shown just left of center at the bottom of the article’s outdated photo. Moreover, the article shows no sign that Ars Technica bothered to find out that Woodland has already approved three facilities. Maybe easier to forgive, though, is the publication’s failure to find out that it had relied on a local newspaper’s erroneous report, later corrected, of the resident who claimed her house “was surrounded by solar farms and has lost its value.” She was actually only conjecturing about possibilities from a proliferation of the facilities.

Town clerk Kim Bryant has seen every development in the long process of bringing three—but not four, at least not now—solar facilities to Woodland. She also receives the internet anger, sometimes filthy and abusive, that’s lobbed at Woodland from across the country and around the world. Her standard email response says, in part, “The decision to reject the 4th solar farm in our town (yes, we have already approved 3) was due to the proposed location. It had absolutely nothing to do with various public comments as the media led you to believe.”

Nor would it be hard for the media to get the Woodland solar story straight, as a few journalists have done, for example, at National Review on the right, Mother Jones and Slate on the left, and Tech Times. Daily Caller, which also got the basic story right, sought to bring in left–right polarization. The article “Did media misquote NC anti-solar residents to make them look stupid?” charged that “numerous left-wing media outlets have repeatedly misquoted citizens of Woodland, N.C., after the city government voted to reject a proposed solar farm.”

In North Carolina’s capital, reporter John Murawski—but not his headline editor—got the story mainly right in a long Woodlandgate article at the Raleigh News and Observer. One of Murawski’s sentences sums it all up: “If not for the handful of public comments about solar farms stealing sunshine, Woodland’s solar moratorium would be as obscure as other local fights over solar farms.” He wrote,

In the past few years, about two dozen solar farms around the state have become targets of public ire, usually over aesthetics and property values. Facing local hostility, several of these energy projects were voluntarily withdrawn by the developers, said Daniel Conrad, a staff attorney for the N.C. Utilities Commission.

The resistance often flares up in areas that have become magnets for solar farms—agricultural communities with cheap farmland near electrical substations where solar farms can interconnect to the power grid, said Stephen Kalland, executive director of the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center.

“Aesthetics and property values”? That’s the kind of answer I heard when I poked around Woodland, looking at the one solar facility already under construction and asking questions. Another answer was that Woodland can zone the facilities, or not, but can’t tax them. I tried hard to get people there to reveal hostility to clean, renewable energy. I tried hard to get them to display the kind of antiscience ignorance that most of the worldwide media reports have mocked. I failed. I believe I failed because the actual answer is simply NIMBY—just as Kim Bryant says in her standard email message, and just as she and her town-hall colleague Jean Bryant told me in a long conversation at the town hall.

But even at the News and Observer, a headline writer contradicted the paper’s own reporter’s NIMBY answer by telegraphing the ignorant-hayseed insinuation in an online headline with three “highlight” subheads:

Rural NC town mocked on social media after passing solar moratorium

* Story goes viral after local residents make outlandish anti-solar claims

* Woodland officials then barraged by hate mail

* Town officials say the Internet missed an important piece of the story

This is crucial: The internet, including major news organizations worldwide, didn’t miss a “piece of the story.” It botched the story itself.

But the hate-mail part merits this anecdote: At the town hall, Kim Bryant and Jean Bryant—who are unrelated—get a good laugh out of vicious online abuse grounded in vulgar accusations about intermarriage among bumpkin cousins.

The botching was still taking place nearly three weeks after the story broke. At the Guardian, a 21 December piece minimized the usual claptrap but persisted in attributing the town council’s NIMBY decision to “skepticism” about clean energy—and persisted in making insinuations about “residents looking to curb clean energy” and about “opponents of renewable energy.” Hostility to clean energy in Woodland, of all places? The Guardian apparently disbelieves what it quoted in plain English from Woodland’s mayor, Kenneth Manuel: “We support solar farms and clean energy—clearly, that’s indicative—given that we already have three solar farms approved.”

I didn’t talk to Manuel, but I can report that the local newspaper article “Woodland mayor explains reasons for solar farm rejection” reported that he “said members of the Town Council had become concerned about being overcrowded by solar farms before the Dec. 3 meeting.” The deplorable silliness cropped up at that meeting. Concerns grew when people began seeing the first facility take shape—the one now going up in the field in Ars Technica’s outdated photo. The article quoted Manuel: “We will be vindicated by the truth.”

Woodland might also be vindicated, at least to some extent, by this: A 22 December search of the websites of the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio showed no Woodland coverage. Maybe those organizations recognized a nonstory.

In Australia, that Sydney Morning Herald piece, after falsely interpreting Woodland’s NIMBY opposition to perceived excessive industrialization as “arguments deployed against renewable energy,” ended with high-minded words about clean energy. Many have brought in similar sentiments, but few have mentioned what Mayor Manuel reportedly said in answer to them:

He added that the small, 800-person Town of Woodland is doing its part to bring clean energy to North Carolina.

“I wonder what the people criticizing us are doing about global warming and clean energy,” he said. “Woodland is doing its part.”

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Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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