Molly Buter / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Corporate TV news coverage of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack failed to mention its historic leak

Fox exploited cyberattack to push for more fossil fuels and attack climate action

  • After the criminal hacking collective known as DarkSide launched a ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline’s business network, corporate broadcast and cable TV news covered the attack and its ramifications -- high gas prices and gas shortages along the Eastern seaboard -- with grave seriousness, while Fox also used the occasion to push a false narrative about the need for more fossil fuel infrastructure. What this coverage ignored, however, was the fact that Colonial has been under investigation since August for a spill that has leaked at least 1.2 million gallons of gasoline into communities located along the southern portion of the pipeline.

    Media Matters analyzed coverage of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack on broadcast morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC and cable networks CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC from May 10 through May 14. We then reviewed whether any of the coverage mentioned the pipeline’s historic gas spill.

    Key Findings

    • From May 10-14, morning and evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 44 segments about the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack. 
    • During the same period, cable news networks -- CNN, Fox, and MSNBC -- aired a combined 284 segments about the Colonial Pipeline attack. 
    • None of these segments on cable or corporate broadcast news mentioned the historic leak.
  • Corporate TV news coverage of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack did not mention the historic, devastating gasoline leak

  • Colonial’s handling of one of the largest gasoline leaks in American history, which was discovered by two teenagers in Huntersville, North Carolina, on August 14, 2020, was already a local scandal well before the company announced on May 8 that it was under a ransomware attack from Eastern European hackers. The Colonial Pipeline cyberattack and its ramifications quickly became a national story during the week of May 10, while the company’s devastating gas leak never became part of that larger coverage.

    From May 10-14, corporate broadcast morning and evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 44 segments about the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack. None of them mentioned the historic, devastating leak.

    Cable news outlets didn’t fare any better: during the same period, from May 10-14 2021, cable news networks -- CNN, Fox, and MSNBC -- aired a combined 284 segments about the Colonial Pipeline. And like the broadcast networks, none of them mentioned the historic gas spill.

    This silence around a leak that local officials believe could take years to clean up is part of a pattern of corporate TV news consistently failing to contextualize how environmental impacts, regulations, and health hazards from our country's fossil fuel infrastructure disproportionately harm socially marginalized communities. As Nakisa Glover, the Hip Hop Caucus Think 100% climate and environmental justice organizer who lives near where the leak was discovered, told Media Matters:

  • There was a huge missed opportunity during the recent coverage of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack to also discuss the harm fossil fuel pipeline infrastructure has on communities. It has been almost a year since Colonial has acknowledged one of the largest gasoline leaks ever just minutes away from where I live. They have a duty to clean it up and must be held accountable.

    What we have witnessed from Colonial is just the tip of the iceberg and is one of the primary reasons why Black and Brown people don’t want pipelines in their communities, where there is already a disproportionate number of toxic industries. These pipelines exist in the backyard of our schools, run under our homes, through our waterways, and they leak and pollute all the time.

    We are seeing the battle against pipeline infrastructure play out with Line 3 in Minnesota, Line 5 in Michigan, and the Byhalia Connection Pipeline in Memphis, Tennessee, which was rerouted from a predominately white, rich community to a Black community.

    Now that the public is well-aware of Colonial, they should have also been informed about the harm pipelines like Colonial cause to communities across our country. The media has a duty to begin telling these stories and connecting them at all of their intersecting points. Black, Indigenous, other communities of color and low-wealth communities across the country are fighting for a just, equitable, green, and regenerative future. And their voices must be heard.

  • The cyberattack, and Colonial’s handling of it, deserved a great deal of media scrutiny, most notably about the security of its critical infrastructure, its decision to pay the $4.4 million ransom, and its revelation that the attack didn’t affect the pipeline’s ability to transport gasoline but, rather, Colonial’s ability to accurately bill customers. Or, as auto industry news site Jalopnik summarized, “the fuel-carrying pipeline was shut down last week in order to prevent a company that is entrusted with what should be a public utility from enduring an accounting headache.”

    If media outlets had been curious about Colonial’s handling of critical infrastructure prior to May 8, they could have contextualized the company’s history of ducking accountability for its negligent actions. It initially obfuscated the size of the current Colonial leak to government environmental officials, according to an article published by The New Republic in March:

  • At first, the company said only around 63,000 gallons of gasoline had spilled, according to local news reports from WSOC. Then, as August turned to September, the number grew to 273,000. In November, as the company assured Huntersville residents that it was “deeply committed to keeping them informed throughout the process,” the number increased again, this time stopping in the neighborhood of 360,000 gallons. By then, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, which was overseeing the cleanup process, released a statement that found that Colonial “has significantly underestimated the volume of gasoline” spilled into the natural preserve. Less than a week later, a Colonial spokesperson admitted to WFAE that the company in fact had no clue how much gas had been pouring from its pipe and that it would, “release a number when we believe it’s accurate and verified through multiple models.”

    In late January, some five months after those two teenagers happened upon the burst pipeline, the spill’s true scope was finally released in a Comprehensive Site Assessment Report filed by the company with DEQ: 1.2 million gallons. Instantaneously, it became one of the largest nontanker spills in modern American history. And even with the 1,600 pages of documentation, there was still a great deal of missing information. Last week, the DEQ sent Colonial a Notice of Continuing Violation, finding that the company had not adequately measured or reported the levels of vapor, soil, and air pollution from the site, ordering it to update its assessment by the end of April, and continue testing the private resident wells. The question that now hovers over this crisis is how Colonial managed to obscure, for this long, the scope of what happened in the backyard of North Carolina’s most populous city.

    Colonial has mostly escaped national scrutiny for its Huntersville mess. The spill has not been covered by The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, or other major national media outlets that could maybe raise this to the national consciousness. Right now, Huntersville residents and North Carolinians in general must depend on local outlets, which are doing the hard work of holding Colonial and DEQ accountable and keeping the affected communities updated.

  • Corporate broadcast and cable news networks couldn’t be bothered to mention the leak even during their extensive coverage of the cyberattack, much less the material harm it has caused the people in Huntersville.

    As scientific warnings continue to stress the need to shift away from fossil fuels and politicians debate how to transition to a clean energy economy, the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack story provided an opportunity for corporate TV news to inform their viewers about not only the climate implications, but also the environmental and health impacts of our continued reliance on fossil fuel infrastructure. These outlets could have expanded their reporting to include how the industry lobbies to weaken environmental regulations at the local, state, and federal level, all while seeking to avoid accountability for the harm that results from lax standards and choosing to locate its physical infrastructure near vulnerable communities.

    However, instead of also reporting on the environmental threats that pipeline infrastructure poses and Colonial’s specific history of environmental accidents, there was silence.

    Into this silence, Fox News was once again able to drive false narratives about climate action, fearmongering that the cyberattack exposed the need to increase fossil fuel production and infrastructure.

  • Fox seized control of the Colonial story to promote fossil fuel infrastructure and attack climate action

  • Fox News aired almost half of the cable news segments from May 10-14 about the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack -- 128 out of 284 total segments -- and it also embedded a dishonest critique of the Biden administration throughout its coverage on the network’s so-called “news” and opinion sides.

    In addition to their efforts to equate the pipeline disruption to the oil crisis and gas lines of the 1970s, even after the pipeline was already back online, Fox News personalities and guests also clumsily shoehorned narratives about the Biden administration’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline and efforts to enact a climate agenda into their coverage of the pipeline shutdown. In fact, 55% of Fox’s segments about the cyberattack, or 70 out of 128, managed to falsely attribute blame or responsibility to Biden.

    Because the pipeline’s August 2020 leak went unreported on other news networks, Fox was able to spin the focus on fuel shortages resulting from the cyberattack into claims that the United States needs to invest more in fossil fuels instead of transitioning to a clean energy economy. 

    But the disruption caused by Colonial’s decision to halt fuel distribution during the ransomware attack does not change the underlying economic realities facing the fossil fuel industry: Since 2015, more than 200 oil and gas companies have gone bankrupt in the United States, and more than 100,000 oil and gas jobs were lost between March and August in 2020 alone.

    Not to mention that to keep Earth habitable, we need to rapidly decarbonize our economy

    None of this matters to Fox News, which allows its hosts, anchors, and guests to propagate climate misinformation on a near-daily basis. That’s because it is less of a “news” outlet and more of a key cog in the right-wing disinformation network that is committed to undermining the political and public consensus around climate change and climate solutions.

  • Corporate TV news missed a key opportunity to contextualize the Colonial Pipeline story

  • The national security implications of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack are obvious. But the media have ignored another obvious story about how Colonial’s poor maintenance of pipeline infrastructure and its history of ducking accountability for environmental accidents resulted in one of the largest gasoline spills in American history. And while the ransomware attack may be over, the consequences of the company’s disastrous gas spill are ongoing -- local outlets reported on May 17 that “Colonial Pipeline recently said their 1.2-million gallon estimate would likely be adjusted upward, as a result of gas product being found in a deeper location than expected near the site.”

    Although there was room to tell both stories, corporate TV news chose to tell only one of them. 

    As a result, Colonial got a pass from both broadcast and cable news, which have already moved on to another news cycle. Fox News got another dishonest talking point in its war against reasonable climate action. And the people harmed by the fossil fuel industries’ frequent explosions, leaks, and spills didn’t get to have their voices heard.


    Media Matters reviewed transcripts in the Nexis, SnapStream, and Kinetiq databases for all original programming on the broadcast morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC and cable networks CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “colonial,” “pipeline,” “leak” or “spill” from May 10-14, 2021.

    We counted segments, which we defined as instances when the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack with one another. We did not include passing mentions of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack without another speaker in the segment engaging with the comment. We also did not include teasers promoting segments about the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack coming up later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed each segment for whether or not any speaker also mentioned the Colonial Pipeline gasoline leak or attributed responsibility for the rising gas prices in the wake of the cyberattack to the Biden administration.