When the lights went out during the 2013 Superbowl, sports fans reacted to the power failure with outrage and surprise. The “Great Blackout” of 2003 was a shock. Fluctuating gas prices, oil spills, and proposals for transcontinental pipelines are all stories filled with drama, controversy, politics and big money.

Toronto Star energy reporter John Spears (left), Globe and Mail national energy reporter Shawn McCarthy and visiting scholar Sean Conway discuss the challenges of covering the energy beat.  Photo by Arsalan Khoso.

Toronto Star energy reporter John Spears (left), Globe and Mail national energy reporter Shawn McCarthy and visiting scholar Sean Conway discuss the challenges of covering the energy beat. Photo by Arsalan Khoso.

Yet energy issues receive only limited coverage in the news, participants acknowledged during “Why Energy Matters,” a panel discussion held at the Ryerson School of Journalism.

“Energy doesn’t matter in and of itself, it’s what you want to do with it,” discussion moderator Sean Conway told about 80 students and faculty from journalism, public policy, architecture and engineering.

Energy in its various forms keeps the lights on, vehicles moving and industry producing, the former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister said during the Feb. 4 session, but it also has economic and environmental consequences that require informed public debate.

Globe and Mail national energy reporter Shawn McCarthy, who sat on the panel with Toronto Star energy reporter John Spears, said the politics and societal impact of energy-related decisions are a daily part of his job.

“You have to help people understand all the issues,” McCarthy said during the event organized by Conway, a visiting research fellow at Ryerson’s Centre for Urban Energy, and Ann Rauhala, associate director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

During the question and answer session, however, journalism professor Anne McNeilly noted that key aspects of energy don’t make headlines. By way of example, she cited the lack of media interest in a proposal by Ontario Power Generation to build underground vaults that will store nuclear waste near Lake Huron. The low-to-intermediate levels of radioactive waste destined for the site will be about one kilometre from the lake, the drinking water source for 40 million people.

Spears was at a loss to explain why the issue hasn’t had a higher profile, but he noted it hasn’t been ignored and that he himself has written about it.

“I think that [the story]’ll take fire at some point because there’s seven or eight possible communities it can end up in,” he predicted.

McCarthy suggested the story hasn’t been front-page news in the Globe and Mail because “a story that’s seen as affecting one province isn’t going to end up in a national paper.” He said many of his stories appear in the business section because he works for that section.

That said, McCarthy observed, many “corporate stories are becoming exceedingly controversial.”

During the discussion, the two veteran energy reporters also offered student journalists advice on how to write fair but tough stories.

Spears said journalists must never lose sight of their audience: “Remember you’re working for the reader and not the source,” he said.

McCarthy emphasized the need for reporters to be sceptical about all sides.

“To assume the corporations are always wrong and bad and that the environmentalists must be right, and not question that, is dangerous.

“The corporate people that I write about don’t think I’m representing them as fairly as the environmentalists, who think I’m closer to the industry than I should be,” says McCarthy. “I figure if both are mad at me, I’ve got it half right.”

Both journalists identified key energy-related issues they predicted journalism students likely will be writing about in 10 years. McCarthy suggested that climate change and the on-going search for an affordable, reliable and environmentally friendly energy source will be issues of ongoing interest.

Spears pointed to the “terribly neglected” role of oceans as a source of sustainable energy and to oceans’ effect on climate as important future topics.

When students sought advice on how to handle the complex issues surrounding the energy file. McCarthy’s advice was straightforward: “Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions.”

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