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Study: Fox News dominated cable news coverage of Willow Project announcement

CNN and MSNBC largely ignore one of the first major climate stories of 2023

On March 13, the Biden administration approved the Willow Project, a highly contentious $6 billion proposal from ConocoPhillips to drill for oil and gas in Alaska. The project is expected to generate over 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year and produce roughly 600 million barrels of oil over 30 years. The decision to greenlight the project was widely considered a “climate litmus test” for President Joe Biden, and it has faced fierce opposition by activists online and on the ground as a potential “carbon bomb” at a time when scientists warn that our dependency on fossil fuels must be drastically reduced to avoid catastrophe.

A Media Matters analysis from March 13-14 found that:

  • Major TV news networks on cable – CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC – aired nearly 1 1/2 hours of total coverage and ran 31 segments combined on the decision to approve the Willow Project.
  • Fox News (54 mins) spent more time covering the major climate story than CNN (16 mins) and MSNBC (15 mins) combined.
  • Only 26% of the overall cable news segments on the Willow Project discussed its climate implications.
  • Fox News dominated cable news coverage of the Willow Project

  • From March 13, when the Biden administration announced the approval of the Willow Project, through March 14, Fox aired nearly 1 hour of coverage dedicated to the decision, far outpacing its cable news counterparts on CNN and MSNBC, which spent a mere 16 and 15 minutes on the announcement, respectively. Notably, none of the cable networks discussed the Willow Project during their prime-time programming in this period. 

    Fox dedicating significantly more coverage to the Willow Project than its mainstream competitors is not unique — in fact, it is consistent with cable news coverage of other major climate stories.   

    During the 2020 presidential campaign, Fox News spent an entire month dominating coverage with misinformation about Biden's climate plan — airing 35 segments about it from July 14 to August 14, seven times the number that CNN aired and four times the coverage that aired on MSNBC. When Biden canceled the Keystone XL pipeline in the first days of his presidency, the network mentioned Biden’s executive order at least 132 times over a 9-day period. When the Green New Deal first emerged as a major climate story in 2019, Fox aired more segments than CNN and MSNBC combined and then continued to hammer the false narratives it tethered to the proposal for years. Both the Green New Deal and the Keystone XL pipeline have become symbols for the right, and Fox News continues to disproportionately shape overall coverage of other policies and actions intended to address the climate crisis. 

    The Willow Project is actually the type of fossil fuel industry-backed development that Fox has been relentlessly calling for since Biden took office — but rather than praise the decision, the network’s criticism of Biden’s energy policy has continued unabated. 

    On the March 13 edition of America’s Newsroom, anchor Dana Perino and Fox News contributor Marc Thiessen quickly pivoted from discussing the Willow Project’s approval to what they claimed are all the ways the Biden administration is still restricting oil and gas drilling.

    “It doesn’t wipe out all of the other things he’s done to launch a war on fossil fuels,” Thiessen said.

  • Video file

    Citation From the March 13, 2023, edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom

  • On the March 14 edition of America Reports, Fox anchor John Roberts described the decision as “a real about-face for Joe Biden.” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) complained that the project’s approval “should have been a decision made a lot sooner” and attacked the administration for not permitting more drilling wells in Alaska: “We're importing 100,000 barrels a day from Venezuela, a terrorist regime with a horrible record on human rights, labor rights, and a horrible record on the environment. One of the most polluting places to produce oil anywhere in the world. How can you do that and not let Alaska produce?”

  • Climate implications of the Willow Project were largely overlooked

  • Ahead of the decision, journalist and author Bill McKibben wrote that “emissions from the Willow project’s oil would cause $19.8 billion in climate damages,” citing research from the Center for American Progress that found “allowing the Willow project to proceed would result in double the carbon pollution that all renewable progress on public lands and waters would save by 2030.” Yet cable news mostly failed to incorporate these clear and significant climate implications of the Willow Project reported by journalists, scientists and activists into their coverage. 

    Just 8 of the 31 cable news segments on the project’s approval mentioned climate implications — CNN (4), Fox News Channel (3), and MSNBC (1).  

    Half of CNN’s mentions of climate implications came across two segments on the March 13 edition of The Lead with Jake Tapper. The first mention aired during a correspondent report on the project’s approval and the second came during a panel discussion, with journalist and radio host Nayyera Haq providing one of the more insightful analyses of the decision:

  • NAYYERA HAQ (JOURNALIST): Climate science is undeniable at this point. Alaska is facing the challenge of jobs now or saving the rest of the planet later. Alaska had 90-degree weather, 90 forest fires this past summer, glaciers are melting at a record pace. So nobody, Alaskans especially but the Biden administration in particular, no one wants to see climate refugees coming from Alaska into the lower 48 heading into the next presidential election.

    HAQ: This is a constant challenge we see. A decision for now versus 15-20 years. So someone from Maine can take that longer-term view. Someone from Alaska is like, I need the problem in front of me right now, not the idea of what will happen 15, 20 years down the line.

  • Video file

    Citation From the March 13, 2023, edition of CNN's The Lead With Jake Tapper

  • Despite some acknowledgment of the climate implications of the project, the cable news coverage of the Willow Project’s approval by and large centered on the politics of the decision, failing to challenge the notion that it will contribute to our energy security, and ignoring what it will mean for our ability to address warming.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “Alaska,” “North Slope,” “National Petroleum Reserve,” “Arctic,” or “project” within close proximity of either of the terms “Willow” or “oil” or any variation of the term “drill” from March 13, 2023, when Biden approved the Willow project, through March 14, 2023.

    We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the Willow Project was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the Willow Project. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the Willow Project with one another.

    We also timed passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the Willow Project without another speaker engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the Willow Project scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed the identified segments for whether they mentioned the climate implications of the project. We rounded all times to the nearest minute.