Insights from ‘Frack Off’ to ‘Frackademia’ – Public Perceptions of Shale Gas in the German Context

Claudia Brändle and Julia Hahn, Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany; Ida Rust, Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research

May 2014

Shale gas extraction via fracking is covered more and more in the German media, as it is in many other countries. Big headlines and strong images represent the complex socio-political context in which this potential energy source is discussed, often with a focus on reaching independence from difficult or problematic gas providers in unsure political situations. In order to gain insight into these discussions and to better understand the arguments used on the different sides, we analyze how different types of media cover this topic and how these are reviewed and assessed by readers. For this, our main sources of information are articles on fracking from online versions of newspapers and magazines, as well as the accompanying readers’ comments. 

Other sources that offer a different approach to the topic include videos on fracking shared and discussed on YouTube, as well as discussions in online communities and social networking services. With these sources at hand, we conduct a qualitative media analysis with a special focus on what kinds of arguments are frequently used against or in favor of fracking, how lay people respond to them and what additional arguments and perspectives they share in their discussion contributions. While we concentrated on the public discussion in Germany, some of our sources are international and show the public perception of fracking in other European or North American countries. We see this as a first step towards learning more about what public or stakeholder discourse is out there, how these connect to other controversies and what (if any) conditions should be for a social license to operate.

All in all, fracking seems to hit a nerve. Its opponents see the method as a vital attack on mother earth, our hunger for energy means we drill deeper and deeper into the ground without any acknowledgement of potential risks. This extreme critique can be found in Josh Fox’s controversial film ‘Gasland’ (2010). This film is of special interest as it raises the question of how this sort of strong presentation can impact its audience, and how perceptions or awareness of risk can be changed. Supporters of shale gas extraction stress the importance of energy independence and emphasize long-term experience with drilling methods and manageable risks.

In our analysis, we find different kinds of arguments that include: the economic, scientific and political aspects of fracking; the representation of lay people’s opinions in the media; fracking and energy policy; and the emotional aspects of the topic. Yet often, it is difficult to differentiate between the arguments made; they are intertwined, influence each other and are raised by diverse groups at different times. In the following we would like to focus on what we have termed the ‘normative aspects of fracking’, as we feel they are an important aid to grasping the issues being raised and they shape the discourse substantially.

Normative Aspects of Fracking

There are considerable ‘emotional’ or normative aspects in the discussion of fracking that shouldn’t be overlooked when studying public perceptions of this technology. In fact, we would argue that understanding these is essential to mapping and analyzing the complexity of the debates. It is important to note that even if there are extensive ‘emotional’ aspects involved in the public perception of fracking, this doesn’t mean that citizens’ opinions on this technology should be dismissed as purely emotional reactions that are unfounded or irrational. 

Unfortunately, this is often exactly what happens in the case of fracking; the reasonable arguments and opinions of lay people are often dismissed by experts as purely emotional responses. This can be seen in various articles arguing in favor of fracking, when authors claim that “in Europe however, shale gas has been demonized”1 or that „it would be wrong, to dismiss shale gas extraction on purely emotional grounds.”2 Yet, these emotional or normative arguments have legitimacy as they reflect basic societal or individual values that tell us a lot about the ethical frameworks behind them. Instead of a deficit model approach, in which conflict around technologies is supposedly resolved by providing more information to the uninformed and therefore opposed public, the ‘emotional’ arguments based on values should be looked at more carefully.

A striking example of how an emotional approach to the topic can have significant impact on the perception of fracking can be seen in Josh Fox’s very successful documentary ‘Gasland’. As a first step to better understanding the impact, we therefore present a short analysis of this film. To better understand the connections between visual arguments and how they influence public perception, further in-depth research focused on perception and opinion-forming in the context of these (strong) visual imageries would be necessary.

‘Gasland’ tells the story of Josh Fox, the director of this non-fiction movie, who was offered 100,000 dollars for his family’s land by a drilling company. In order to understand the consequences of this offer, he interviewed several people whose land had been drilled for gas, but also people representing governmental institutions and the oil and gas industry. In the course of the documentary the viewers are presented with how producing shale gas contaminates groundwater and negatively affects the health of humans and animals. The famous shot from Gasland where a farmer lights his tap water on fire went viral globally and instigated an even greater fear of fracking than before. When looking at public perceptions of fracking the question is: how is it possible that this movie had such a large impact on people’s perception of shale gas?

Industry and scientists are prone to respond to the movie in a rational way,stating that the presented information in Gasland is incomplete or even incorrect. The effect of this attempt to ‘rationalize’ the presented images, however, seems to have little effect. The answer to this phenomenon can be found in the word ‘image’. Josh Fox is a master at creating the right image, framing a shot by using the right filters, camera-angles, props, music and so on. A medium such as film or television is all about transferring information. 

When we transfer information it is very important to understand how information is perceived. It is also very important to know who the audience will be. Where Industry and scientists try to transfer knowledge about the production process and the precautions taken, Josh Fox wanted to project a completely different message, namely: “shale gas is dangerous for you and your environment”. In order to make sure this message comes across the right way, he puts a lot of effort into the way he presents it. To the people affected by drilling, he introduces himself as a friend in the same boat. During the filming, he varies between professional dynamic and static or handheld ‘home video’ camera usage, depending upon the information and feeling he wants to communicate. He adds music to the imagesthat he knows will be recognized and liked by his target group. In short, Gasland was made with the intention of communicating a certain message, and it succeeded to a certain degree. 

To better understand the degree to which it was successful, it would be necessary to further investigate how viewers perceive and judge Gasland and other documentaries on fracking. By analyzing the images used, we can get deeper insights into the analogies and arguments made by critics of fracking, and potentially better understand the complex interfaces and discourses; often these cannot be explained solely by offering more ‘sound information’ on the technicalities of fracking, or by dismissing normative arguments as too emotional or irrational.

A further important ‘emotional’ context can be found in the broad opposition to nuclear energy found in Germany, which eventually lead to a complete withdrawing from nuclear power. Two aspects of this opposition to nuclear energy might bear some relevance to opinions on fracking. The first aspect concerns the impact of emotional engagement with nuclear energy on public perception. In the Eighties, lots of books aimed at teenagers were published that dealt with the effects of nuclear disasters in a very detailed manner. 

These books were discussed in the majority of schools and might therefore have had a big impact on the perception of nuclear energy amongst this generation of students.3 It would be interesting to discover if similar literature appeared in other countries, and if not, if this kind of emotionally charged literature could be part of the explanation into why Germany was the only country that decided to withdraw from nuclear power after the Fukushima incident. This might furthermore show that the emotional aspect concerning a technology such as nuclear energy or fracking should not be underestimated, and that emotional approaches to a technology such as fracking can be quite powerful tools for shaping public perception.

In the case of Germany, where there already is a strong emotional opposition to nuclear energy, the population may be even more susceptible to films such as ‘Gasland’ and other negative portrayals of fracking. Emotional approaches can be used by both opponents and proponents of fracking, however. There are articles that try to shape public perception by igniting fears of job loss and economic instability were Germany not to use fracking.4 

This strategy doesn’t seem to work, however, as people commenting on one particular article accuse the author and the magazine of being lobbyists, manipulating the numbers and concealing the dangers of this technology, citing counter-arguments such as water pollution, the population density of Germany in comparison with the USA, and the risk of possible earthquakes. Other comments are more emotional and show that in the discussion of fracking, certain values such as sustainability, care for the environment and worries about future generations play a distinctive role. Proponents of fracking are perceived as having the “wrong” kind of values, cherishing money over people and the environment. There are even comments that reference the above mentioned film ‘Gasland’. This shows that the film, although only available in English and dealing with the situation in the USA, does play a role in the perception and ergo the discussion of fracking amongst the German public.

Future Research

Using our qualitative approach to analyze different types of media on the perception of fracking, we were able to identify key aspects of this topic, as well as a variety of different opinions and argument patterns both for and against fracking, which play a distinctive role in the public assessment. 

As our main sources consisted of relatively anonymous commentaries to videos and online articles, however, we have no concrete data on age, gender, political orientation or social background of the commenters in question. A next step could then be to conduct a quantitative survey to verify our findings and gain more insight on how certain parameters such as age or gender influence the perception of fracking. Setting up focus groups might be another way to get the necessary representative data and to test if the argument patterns found in our qualitative analysis repeat themselves in this setting.

We also regard a cross-country (Germany, other European states and the USA) analysis and comparison as important to better identify the specific values expressed in the ‘emotional’ arguments. These might differ within and between different countries. An in-depth analysis of how perceptions around fracking are shaped would offer further important insights. In this context it could be helpful to look at the way the arguments are related to or even based upon other controversial technologies. 

Opponents of fracking often contextualize their arguments according to highly debated technologies such as nuclear power. In the German context, critics can find it beneficial to frame fracking using similar arguments that have proven to work in the past against nuclear energy. Perceptions of course are in constant flow. As political situations become more tense and gas supplies more uncertain, societal and political discussions will potentially re-evaluate what was once clear; for example, through consideration of a moratorium. Therefore, the challenge for further research is to keep these developments on the agenda and to try to understand the discourses and arguments.


1+4 Article “Mehr Erdgas!”, by Daniel Yergin and Ralf Wiegert, published on, 14.01.2014, and accompanying commentaries

2 Interview with Günther Oettinger, published in, 06.01.2014, by Jochen Gaugele

3 For an interesting commentary on this topic, see: “Pädagogische Horrorshow”, by Judith Liere, published on

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The Debate

Insights from ‘Frack Off’ to ‘Frackademia’ – Public Perceptions of Shale Gas in the German Context