Writing on oil…how much do you know?
When I first heard about the project, Oil Reporting in Iraq, I was a little surprised that it was even necessary for people outside Iraq to deal with such a topic. It was one of the first projects I worked on at OpenOil back in 2010, and it consisted of a wikipedia-style database with articles on a wide range of topics related to the oil industry in Iraq and more widely. It was designed to provide journalists working in Iraq with basic background knowledge of an industry which has a huge effect on politics, economics and general lifestyle in the country.
Naively, I was under the impression that natives of a country with the 4th largest oil reserves in the world, would intrinsically have a far deeper knowledge of oil than those living in a largely oil-importing country like the UK. Surely that’s the kind of thing that you would just know; you would have picked it up from general chitchat, from growing up in the country, from your parents telling you bits of information, and primarily, from the media.
The crucial point that I just didn’t think about was that in order for society to have enough knowledge about a certain topic, the flow of information needs to start from somewhere. As you might have gathered, there has traditionally been a lot of secrecy around the oil industry; slightly cynical, but it’s hardly surprising considering how much money is involved. International oil companies, and governments of oil-rich countries have, in the past, not really been that eager to publicise the details of oil contracts, or encourage people to learn more about the ins and outs of the contracts.
So if you consider the public of a country where their most important industry has been shrouded in secrecy, you would almost expect them to know very little about it…which is where the Iraqi Oil Reporting guide found its purpose, as part of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). While I’m not saying that someone needs to be an energy specialist to accurately report on oil, having a basic background knowledge to start with is fairly essential to understanding what should be going on in their country, or what shouldn’t be.
It’s a logical train of actions really- for a government to reduce corruption and improve the way in which it works, they need to be held accountable by civil society, and by the public. For the public to know enough about a topic, they need to be accurately informed by the media, and hopefully the Iraqi Oil Reporting Guide is now providing a key information source for journalists wanting to inform themselves about the oil industry.
Another one of the projects that I’m working on at the moment is in collaboration with Internews, an international media development organisation. The idea is simple, but will hopefully be very effective; encouraging journalists to read about the oil industry in order to learn more about it. We’ve collected a set of materials, of varying difficulties and from various sources, all containing information about the oil and gas industry. We’ve also created a bank of 100 multiple choice questions on the material, which can be used to check understanding and also as another way to help people absorb the information. Journalists who want to learn more about the oil industry will be able to access the materials, and the questions, and they will be told how well they do in the tests which will, in theory at least, act as more encouragement.
Language is a key issue, given that our target audience is based in the Middle East, so the questions have been translated into Arabic, and only documents or articles that have Arabic translations are being used. As part of the project, we will continue to produce a set of questions each month on different topics related to the oil industry, and make them available in both English and Arabic.
Fancy seeing how much you know about the oil industry? You can have a go at the questions (which appear with the accompanying material) here…