Molly Butler / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Cable news, particularly Fox, overstated the role of Pennsylvania fracking in the 2020 election

In the week before the election, cable news pushed a pro-fracking narrative that ran counter to what other outlets were saying about its importance to Pennsylvania

  • In the week leading up to the presidential election on November 3, cable news outlets, led by Fox News, pushed the idea that Pennsylvania would likely be won or lost on how voters interpreted the candidates’ stance on fracking.

    Specifically, the coverage suggested that a perceived lack of support for the fracking industry would kill a candidate’s chances of carrying the state in the election. Largely absent from the coverage was that anti-fracking sentiment in the state has grown stronger over the last several years due to the environmental, climate, and health impacts caused by the practice and the overall decline of the industry.

    From October 27 through November 3, Fox News discussed fracking in Pennsylvania 58 times -- in 41 mentions and 17 segments. MSNBC and CNN talked about fracking in Pennsylvania significantly less than Fox News. MSNBC discussed fracking 11 times -- in 10 mentions and 1 segment -- while CNN discussed fracking 8 times -- in 6 mentions and 2 segments. Many of these mentions and segments pushed the fracking and electability narrative: 35 claims on Fox (58%), 5 claims on MSNBC (45%), and 5 claims on CNN (63%). Additionally, climate and environmental impacts were rarely mentioned as a concern for voters: only once on Fox News and MSNBC, and not at all on CNN.

  • Cable-news-fracking-Pennsylvania
  • In total, nearly 60% of cable news’ mentions and segments on Pennsylvania fracking -- 45 claims out of 77 mentions and segments -- stressed the idea that fracking was the key to winning or losing Pennsylvania.

    The idea that a pro-fracking stance was critical to the outcome of the election is a media narrative that was built over time by both legacy and right-wing media, rooted in national publications and calcified by cable news. But in the final weeks before the election, local media questioning the conventional wisdom of the fracking narrative started to inform national stories suggesting that fracking's prominence in Pennsylvania was overblown. This major shift in the national narrative never made its way to cable news, which pushed its stale framing through election day.

    Since Biden was declared the winner in Pennsylvania and analysis showing that Trump’s closing pro-fracking argument did not help his turn out, discussion about fracking has mostly vanished from cable news -- and it is gone without any public acknowledgment that its fracking commentary was flawed.

    It remains to be seen whether the lessons that should have been learned -- including that the fossil fuel industry’s social license to operate is waning; that the majority of Americans favor a transition to clean energy; and that a serious national discussion is needed on how to transition justly -- will underpin cable coverage of energy issues going forward.

  • Fox News heavily promoted the fracking narrative in Pennsylvania

  • Beginning the week before the election through November 3, Fox News aired 41 mentions and 17 segments related to Pennsylvania and fracking. There were thirty-five claims that overstated the issue of fracking and how it would either win or lose the state.

    For example, on the November 1 edition of Sunday Morning Futures, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that Biden’s stance on fracking is “the biggest mistake Biden has made. … I think that alone flips Pennsylvania.” Later that afternoon on Outnumbered, Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe stated clearly:

  • LISA BOOTHE: Working-class voters defected from the Democrat Party because they faced eight years of a war on coal and a war on working-class voters. Joe Biden has now chosen to double down on that war by repeatedly being on the record saying he's going to ban fossil fuels, he’s going to ban fracking, he’s going to transition away from the oil industry. This issue alone -- if Joe Biden loses Pennsylvania, this is the reason why.

  • Later that night on Fox News Democracy 2020: Election Preview, Fox anchor Dana Perino reacted to Graham’s comments, saying that he was “right” in his assessment and Biden’s position on fracking may help Trump: “I think that it might stop some losses indeed, and it might … encourage people to get out there.” On the November 2 edition of Bill Hemmer Reports, Trump 2020 campaign advisor Steve Cortes said, “I believe Joe Biden may very well have lost himself Pennsylvania on that stage in Nashville when he said we are going to transition away from energy.”

    For Fox News, and much of the cable coverage in general, the importance of fracking in Pennsylvania was, in part, built around a deliberate inflation of how many jobs the industry supports. For example, on the October 31 edition of Fox Report with Jon Scott, the Trump campaign’s Press Communications Director Erin Perrine claimed, without any pushback, that Biden “wants to destroy the economy in Pennsylvania by banning fracking which would cost 600,000 jobs and $261 billion from the Pennsylvania economy.” An explainer from the Breath Project notes that “the total number of jobs in the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania never reached more than 30,000 over the last five years and is now less with the industry’s economic decline.” This comment also came 10 days after the White House released a report on the Pennsylvania energy industry which notes that the oil and gas industry “employs approximately 26,000 workers” in the state.

    It is worth noting that Fox played a significant role in elevating fracking as an election issue and not just in the final weeks of the election. Over an eight-week period from July 14 through September 1, the network pushed the false narrative that a Biden administration would ban fracking 69 times out of 95 total segments. In these discussions, the conversation was primarily about his electability due to his fracking position and not about the climate or environmental effects of fracking. In late October, after Biden commented in the presidential debate that he wanted to transition away from oil, cable news shows overwhelmingly pushed a pro-industry, conservative framing of Biden’s comments. Fox ran 92 segments, and all of them contained the pro-Big Oil framing. Only two of these segments mentioned the climate implications. Many of these segments also suggested that Biden’s oil transition comments would lose him energy-producing states such as Pennsylvania.

  • CNN and MSNBC discussed fracking and Pennsylvania 19 times. There were 10 claims about how fracking was key to winning or losing the state

  • MSNBC aired 10 mentions and one segment on fracking in Pennsylvania. There were five claims that overstated the importance of fracking in the state, while only once mentioning the environmental or health impacts of fracking.

    For example, on the October 29 edition of MSNBC Live with Stephanie Ruhle, economist and Trump administration official Peter Navarro claimed without any pushback, “Hundreds of thousands of people who work in that industry directly and hundreds of thousands more indirectly. So, you know if you have one president who likes fracking and another president who may not like fracking, and there's a flip-flop there, that makes a difference.” On the November 1 edition of Decision 2020 - Countdown to Election Day, MSNBC host Ali Velshi stated, “But Donald Trump has for the last couple of weeks been going on about this fracking idea. He’s misrepresented Joe Biden's position here. But in western Pennsylvania, I was in Luzerne County yesterday, points west of that toward the western end of the state, fracking is a really, really big deal.”

    (While Trump won Luzerne County this year just as he did in 2016, Biden increased the vote share fairly significantly from 2016 to 2020 -- he received 42% of the vote with over 64,000 votes in 2020, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 39% of the vote with over 51,000 votes in 2016.)

    This narrative appeared post-election as well. On the November 10 edition of The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, guest Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) voiced his support for fracking, and stated, “If [Biden] had an anti-fracking position he would not have won the state of Pennsylvania."

    CNN aired six mentions and two segments on Pennsylvania fracking. There were five claims that overstated the importance of fracking in the state.

    For example, on the October 31 edition of New Day, Republican strategist Alice Stewart stated, “Fracking jobs are key in Pennsylvania. Thousands and thousands of people rely on money they make from the fracking jobs and without a certain answer from Joe Biden on what he wants to do with the future in that industry, that’s going to turn a lot of voters off of him.”

    On the November 1 edition of State of the Union, CNN contributor and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) noted the importance of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board endorsing Trump, stating, “I never thought I'd live to see that day again, and that's just because of the issue of fracking, the issue of energy and what it means to the hundreds of thousands of jobs in western Pennsylvania.” (Fracking was just one of the reasons that the paper endorsed Trump, not the only issue.)

    One rare example of pushback against the fracking and electability narrative comes from a CNN special Election Day in America on November 3, where Anderson Cooper asked if Biden’s stance on fracking will hurt him in Ohio and Pennsylvania. CNN contributor and former Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich responded, “You know, Anderson, my gut tells me that's a small slice of people.”

  • Cable news kept chasing the fracking electability narrative, despite ample coverage elsewhere showing that it may be overblown

  • The narrative around fracking as a major Pennsylvania campaign issue picked up steam earlier in 2020, with The New York Times writing about how opposition to fracking could be a huge issue for Democrats trying to win back the state. Similarly, a January op-ed in the Wall Street Journal -- penned by Trump’s former economic adviser Stephen Moore and titled “Democrats’ War on Fracking Will Cost Them in Battleground States” -- claimed that a pledge by nearly all Democratic candidates during the primaries (a list in which he falsely included Biden) to end fracking and consequently all the jobs it created would ensure their loss in swing states. Other major outlets like The Washington Post and New York magazine also published pieces about fracking as a key election issue in Pennsylvania.

    Just weeks out from the election, there was a tectonic shift in the narrative around fracking. Many local media, national publications, and experts began echoing the same sentiment that fracking’s role in determining the outcome of the election was overblown. But this insight never reached cable news.

    In The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, Will Bunch's October 25 column “Trump, TV pundits don’t have a fracking clue about Pennsylvania and fossil fuels,” illustrated some of the folly of the national media chasing the Pennsylvania fracking story. Joshua Cho of FAIR laid out similar facts in an op-ed published in the Inquirer on November 2 titled “A fracking ban isn’t ‘political suicide’ in Pennsylvania.” Writing for metropolitan Pittsburgh paper Trib Live, Allison Grass of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch debunked some of the more outlandish claims about the importance of fracking. In a November 1 column in the Reading Eagle, columnist Lisa Scheid questioned why Mike Pence talked up fracking so much in Berks County, and laid out a nuanced view of fracking in the state. The York Dispatch, serving residents of York County (the eighth-largest county by population in Pennsylvania) wrote an editorial on October 30 titled “Pa. should ignore fracking debate.” The editorial called attention being paid to fracking “outsized.”

    Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who was profiled in the original New York Times fracking story, also stated in Public Source, a nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh, that fracking was no longer a top issue in Pennsylvania, and it had been overtaken by coronavirus, the economy, and racial justice. He added, “I don’t know why [fracking] keeps coming up. … It baffles me that it would be the deciding factor for any bloc of voters at this point.”

    Some national reporting echoed these claims as well. Writing for Grist, Eve Andrews dove into the Biden and Trump campaigns’ obsession with Pennsylvania fracking while interviewing people in western Pennsylvania who live near a proposed fracking well. She noted the predatory nature of fracking companies, recent polls which show support for fracking generally split evenly, and the environmental and public health effects of fracking. In The Guardian, Nina Lakhani reported on the Mariner East Pipeline, a controversial pipeline that would carry fracked gas to an export facility in Delaware, to illustrate the growing opposition to fracking by those impacted by the industry’s dirty and dangerous infrastructure. The Washington Post wrote in early November on Trump’s pro-fracking push: “It's unclear what sort of traction a pro-fracking message will have in Pennsylvania with so many votes already cast and with the cultural identity of the state's working class more tied to coal than natural gas.”

    Initial post-election analysis indeed suggested that fracking did not play too big of a role in the election. Ryerson University professor Sibo Chen wrote a piece titled “Biden’s stance against fossil fuels didn’t turn away voters in Pennsylvania and other key states” in The Conversation. In it, Chen looked at vote results in four major oil and gas states (Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas) and determined that “either Biden’s talk of fossil fuel divestment did not substantially change voters’ minds, or it led to larger voter turnouts of progressive young voters.”

  • Cable news chased fracking while largely ignoring its climate and environmental impacts

  • Climate change was mentioned only once during Fox’s segments and mentions of fracking and Pennsylvania. On the October 31 edition of America’s News Headquarters, the Wall Street Journal’s John Bussey stated that Biden “wants to transition to alternative energies which is his effort to get those people who are concerned about climate change and about methane that's also produced in the fracking process.” 

    On the October 28 edition of MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said that talking about climate “is a winning issue for Joe Biden” and that’s why “Biden is doing so well in Pennsylvania and many places. He also stated (correctly) that Biden is “not going to eliminate fossil fuels tomorrow.” (Tim Ryan mentioned achieving climate goals during the November 10 edition of The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, but this mention was not related to fracking in Pennsylvania.)

    None of CNN’s Pennsylvania fracking mentions or segments mentioned either climate change or the environmental impacts of fracking that so many in Pennsylvania are concerned about.

    Despite cable news’ neglect of climate issues, recent polls show that a majority of Pennsylvania voters support the transition to a clean energy economy and want the government to do more to address climate change.

    The fracking-is-jobs narrative was also heavily played during the last week leading up to the election. Trump’s statements on fracking jobs -- whether about how many the industry supports, or about how many would be lost if Biden enters office -- were rarely fact-checked. Additionally, clean environment and jobs are not mutually exclusive. Clean energy jobs already outnumber fossil fuel jobs in Pennsylvania. Finally, plans to deal with climate change, such as the Green New Deal or Biden’s climate plan (which again was rarely talked about in relation to fracking) are also huge job creation programs.

  • Future lessons for cable news

  • Philadelphia Inquirer Will Bunch got it right when he stated:

  • There’s a weird kind of magnet force that draws journalists to look for laid-off gas workers or struggling small barkeepers in quaint rural burgs while ignoring the densely populated, un-quaint suburbs that are voting for politicians like Chester County state Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, who made opposition to the Mariner East pipeline the centerpiece of her 2018 upset win and who recently told a journalist that “the pipeline project is an example of how our constitutional rights, like health and safety, have been chipped away.

  • It was urban and suburban voters who helped deliver Pennsylvania to Biden -- areas where fracking traditionally does not poll well. Allegheny County, crucially, went big on Biden; it is here where fracking projects have led to an increase in air pollution in the region; where several municipalities and townships in the County have pushed back on fracking projects. In the future, more segments should be conducted in these areas.

    Fracking is a climate issue, a public health issue, and an environmental issue -- failing to adequately report on these does not give the viewer credible information. Instead, cable news ran with a lazy fracking narrative that had already been debunked by local and other national sources. In an era of worsening climate change, this cannot happen again.


    Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC from October 28 through November 3, 2020, for any of the terms “oil,” “gas,” “fracking,” or “climate” within close proximity to the term “Pennsylvania.”

    We counted segments, which we defined as instances when Pennsylvania fracking was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of Pennsylvania’s fracking in segments about other topics. We defined significant discussion as two or more speakers discussing fracking with one another. We also counted passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker mentioned fracking in a multitopic segment without any other speaker engaging with the comment.

    We defined a claim as an uninterrupted block of speech from a single speaker.

    We included original statements from speakers. We did not include clips or quotes of others unless we found positive affirmation from another speaker on the program either before or after the clip or quote.

    We then reviewed each segment and mention for whether or not any speaker stated or suggested that a presidential candidate’s stance on fracking would win or lose the state of Pennsylvania. Additionally, we reviewed each segment and mention for whether or not the harmful climate or environmental impacts were connected to fracking.