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STUDY: The Press And The Pipeline

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This article cross-posted from Media Matters.org

A Media Matters analysis shows that as a whole, news coverage of the Keystone XL pipeline between August 1 and December 31 favored pipeline proponents. Although the project would create few long-term employment opportunities, the pipeline was primarily portrayed as a jobs issue. Pro-pipeline voices were quoted more frequently than those opposed, and dubious industry estimates of job creation were uncritically repeated 5 times more often than they were questioned. Meanwhile, concerns about the State Department's review process and potential environmental consequences were often overlooked, particularly by television outlets.

Pro-Pipeline Voices Were Quoted More Frequently

All But Two Major News Outlets Quoted More Pipeline Supporters Than Opponents. With the exceptions of USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, every news outlet included in this study quoted or hosted more people in favor of the pipeline than opposed.

  • BROADCAST: Among the broadcast networks, 79% of those quoted or interviewed were in favor of the pipeline. NBC and ABC did not quote anyone opposed.
  • CABLE: On Fox News, 66% of those quoted or hosted were in favor and 13% were opposed. CNN featured 54% in favor and only 14% opposed. MSNBC was the most balanced, with 38% in favor and 31% opposed.
  • PRINT: Of those quoted by the major newspapers, 45% were in favor of the pipeline and 31% were opposed. The New York Times was the most balanced, quoting 35% in favor and 27% opposed. The Wall Street Journal was the least balanced, with 52% in favor and 21% opposed.

Op-Eds/Editorials Supporting Keystone XL Outweighed Those Opposed. The editorial boards of the Washington Post, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal have come out in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline. Those three newspapers published 16 op-eds or editorials supporting the pipeline and only one opposed. All together, the print outlets published 19 op-eds or editorials in favor of the project and 10 opposed. The New York Times editorial board took a stance against the pipeline.

TV News Coverage Mirrored Pipeline Proponents' Preferred Framing

Media Framed Pipeline As A Jobs Issue. Although the pipeline would lead to a small number of long-term jobs, the potential for job creation from the pipeline was mentioned in 68% of print coverage, 67% of broadcast coverage and 75% of cable coverage.

  • BROADCAST: All three broadcast networks mentioned jobs more than any other issue we tracked in the Keystone XL debate. CBS topped the list, discussing jobs in 75% of its coverage.
  • CABLE: Fox News mentioned jobs in 85% of its coverage -- more than any other television network. Both Fox and CNN covered jobs more than all the other issues we measured combined. Only MSNBC mentioned environmental factors more often than jobs.
  • PRINT: USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal covered jobs more than any other issue we tracked. The Los Angeles Times mentioned jobs in 86% of its coverage, topping all other media outlets included in our analysis.
Media Repeated Industry's Inflated Job Numbers

Industry Job Estimates Have Been Widely Discredited. TransCanada, the Canadian company behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, has long pushed the message that the project would "directly create more than 20,000 high-wage manufacturing jobs and construction jobs in 2011-2012 across the U.S." as well as "118,000 spin-off jobs," and up to 553,000 jobs "stemming from a permanent increase in stable oil supplies." At times TransCanada used the term "jobs" to refer to what was actually an estimate of "person-years of employment," and the press rarely explained the difference. Some of TransCanada's figures come from a study that independent analysts have called "dead wrong," "meaningless," "flawed and poorly documented."

A Bloomberg Government analysis found that TransCanada's estimate of direct job creation per mile is higher than what took place during construction of the pipeline TransCanada completed in 2010, indicating that the company either "intends to hire more workers [per mile] for shorter periods of time, or that the company's construction crew and jobs figures are overstated, compared with earlier stages of the Keystone project." The State Department estimated that "the construction work force would consist of approximately 5,000 to 6,000 workers," and said the project "would not have a significant impact on long-term employment."


Media Uncritically Repeated Industry Job Estimates 76 Times. Every news outlet included in our analysis uncritically repeated TransCanada's jobs numbers at least once. The major print outlets did so 34 times - in 29% of the Keystone XL articles mentioning jobs -- with the Associated Press accounting for almost half of those instances. The broadcast networks repeated these figures 4 times -- one third of the times jobs were mentioned. And the cable networks did so 38 times -- 45% of the coverage mentioning jobs. Fox News uncritically repeated these numbers more than all the other television networks combined.

By Contrast, Criticisms Of These Figures Were Rarely Mentioned. Criticisms of the industry job estimates were included a total of 6 times in the print coverage, or 5% of the print coverage that mentioned jobs. The cable outlets covered the criticisms a total of 9 times, or 11% of cable coverage that mentioned jobs. All together, the outlets uncritically passed along TransCanada's numbers 5 times more often than they mentioned criticisms of those numbers.

TV Media Downplayed Environmental Risks

Keystone XL Prompted Serious Environmental Concerns. The original Keystone XL pipeline route would cross through the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, a "sensitive ecosystem" sitting atop the Ogallala Aquifer, a major source of drinking water for the region. Given that the existing Keystone pipeline has "experienced 14 spills since it began operation," including a major spill of 21,000 gallons, many are concerned about the potential for groundwater contamination if the oil were to spill. This concern is amplified by reports that PHMSA, the agency responsible for overseeing pipeline safety, is chronically understaffed and toothless.

Before Congressional Republicans imposed a decision deadline on the Obama administration, TransCanada, the state of Nebraska, and the State Department had agreed to consider an alternative route around the Sand Hills. Others object to the pipeline because it signifies a long-term commitment to the unconventional production of fossil fuels that drive climate change. EPA initially criticized the State Department for not fully assessing the pipeline's impact on climate change, noting that developing tar sands oil is 82% more carbon intensive than the average crude refined in the U.S.

TV Coverage Often Overlooked Environmental Risks. While the Keystone XL pipeline debate was often framed as a 'jobs versus environment' issue, specific environmental concerns were only mentioned in 34% of cable coverage and 17% of broadcast coverage. Specifically, the threat posed by the pipeline to the Ogallala Aquifer was mentioned in 16% of cable coverage and 17% of the broadcast coverage, while climate change was mentioned in 10% of cable coverage and 6% of broadcast coverage.

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