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STUDY: How Media Advanced Conservatives' Misleading “War On Coal” Narrative

A Media Matters analysis of major U.S. newspapers reporting on the alleged “war on coal” found that newspapers provided one-sided coverage of the issue and seldom mentioned the coal industry's negative environmental and health impacts or its efforts to fight regulations. Out of 223 articles published in major U.S. newspapers this year mentioning the phrase “war on coal,” more than half failed to mention underlying issues that account for the coal industry's decline and the need for regulations. Further, less than 10 percent of articles mentioned harm caused by the coal industry or how the coal industry is fighting against regulations aimed at protecting miners and reducing pollution.

  • Newspapers Advanced “War On Coal” Narrative With With One-Sided Coverage In Midterm Election Year

    Top U.S. Newspapers Often Reported On The “War On Coal” Uncritically This Year. A Media Matters analysis of major U.S. newspaper coverage of the so-called “war on coal” from January 1, 2014, to November 30, 2014, revealed that newspapers only mentioned the underlying issues that account for the coal industry's decline and the need for regulations less than half the time. Specifically, the study looked at whether articles mentioning the “war on coal” over the past year included any mention of at least one of the following issues: 1) air and water pollution caused by coal and associated negative health impacts; 2) coal's contribution to global warming; 3) the health and safety of miners; and 4) the economic and technological factors, including the rise of natural gas production and the coal industry's efficiency increases, that have accounted for the coal industry's decline over the past several decades.

    Half Of Articles Reporting On “War On Coal” Failed To Mention An Issue Affecting Coal Industry. Of the 223 articles in major U.S. newspapers mentioning the “war on coal” this year, more than half (113) failed to mention at least one of the above-mentioned issues affecting the coal industry's decline. Climate change received the most mentions, with 68 articles linking coal emissions to increased global warming; but for the issues that have most impacted coal-producing states in recent decades -- miner safety, health and pollution, and the loss of coal mining jobs due to economic and technological factors -- coverage was especially sparse. Health and pollution, economic and technological factors, and miner safety received mentions in 43, 33, and eight articles, respectively.

    War On Coal - Percent Issue Mention

    • The articles mentioning climate change in the context of the “war on coal” often framed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) forthcoming carbon pollution standards as harmful to the coal industry, even though the standards are not yet in place. Without including mentions of climate change, the number of articles mentioning the existing issues already affecting the coal industry's decline dropped to 40 articles, or just 18 percent of total coverage.

    War on Coal - Issue Mentions

    A Majority Of Newspapers Failed To Mention Issues In At Least Half Of Their “War On Coal” Coverage. Out of the 36 major newspapers studied that published articles mentioning the “war on coal” this year, a majority failed to mention an existing issue facing the coal industry in at least half of their reporting. Specifically, 17 newspapers mentioned an existing issue in at least half of their coverage, while 19 newspapers mentioned an existing issue in less than half of their coverage. Of those 19 newspapers, nine failed to include any mention of issues.

    War on Coal - Newspaper Coverage

    • The Courier-Journal and The New York Times had the highest number of articles mentioning the issues, with 26 each. They were followed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe with nine, five, and five articles, respectively.  

    War on Coal - Top Newspapers

    Top Newspapers Allowed Candidates To Blame Obama For Coal Industry Woes. In the months preceding the November 2014 midterm elections, Republicans often attributed the “war on coal” to President Obama, “hoping to use the combustible issue to tarnish Democrats” in the elections, according to Out of 189 articles published this year before the midterm elections that mentioned the “war on coal,” 127 attributed the “war” to President Obama, 91 of which included quotes or attributions from midterm candidates blaming the president for the “war on coal.”  [, 7/1/13]

    War on Coal - Blamed Obama

    Left Unsaid: The Harm Caused By The Coal Industry And How The Coal Industry Is Fighting Regulations

    Top Newspapers Rarely Mentioned Coal Industry's Casualties Or How Coal Industry Is Fighting Against Regulations. Newspaper articles mentioning the “war on coal” seldom mentioned how the coal industry is fighting environmental regulations and worker protections or the harm caused by the coal industry to miners and the public. Out of 223 articles published this year, only 22 mentioned how the coal industry is fighting to undo EPA regulations, either through lawsuits or donating money to anti-regulation candidates, and only 16 mentioned direct harm caused by the coal industry.

    War on Coal - Harm Caused 

    2014 Saw Record Levels Of Black Lung Among Coal Miners.  A study conducted this year by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that rates of the worst form of black lung in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia were “at levels not seen in 40 years.” The researchers behind the study claimed the increase “can only be the result of overexposures and/or increased toxicity stemming from changes in dust composition.” [The Courier-Journal, 9/15/14]

    The Coal Industry Is Fighting Efforts To Reduce Health Regulations. Murray Energy, the nation's largest independent coal operator, filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration in April, claiming that new rules meant to protect coal miners from black lung are “overly burdensome and costly to industry.” [Associated Press, 5/1/14]

    Coal Industry's Go-To Law Firm Withheld Evidence To Deny Miners Benefits For Decades. An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that Jackson Kelly PLLC, the coal industry's “go-to law firm for coal companies seeking to beat back miners' claims for federal black lung benefits,” withheld evidence and engaged in unethical behavior to deny several miners their benefits through a “cutthroat approach to fighting miners' claims that Jackson Kelly has employed to great effect for decades.” [Center for Public Integrity, published 10/29/13, updated 8/6/14]

    Industry-Backed Doctor May Have Denied Benefits For 1,100 Coal Workers. A joint investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News found that Dr. Paul Wheeler, the leader of “the coal industry's go-to institution for obtaining negative readings of X-rays,” may have been responsible for the wrongful denial of benefits to about 1,100 coal miners. Their investigation revealed that “in more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000, the leader of the Johns Hopkins unit, Dr. Paul Wheeler, never once found a case of severe black lung, even as other doctors looking at the same X-rays saw this advanced form of the disease in 390 cases.” [Center for Public Integrity, 11/6/14]

    Duke Energy Caused One Of The Largest Coal Ash Spills In U.S. History This Year. On February 2, Duke Energy, the largest electric utility in the country with large holdings in coal, was responsible for one of the largest coal ash spills in U.S. history after a leak in a stormwater pipe sent 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater pouring into the Dan River in North Carolina, according to the company. [, 2/25/14]

    Duke Energy Changed Laws Requiring Cleanups. After environmental activists in North Carolina brought a lawsuit last year against Duke Energy for neglecting to clean up several of its ash pits that showed contamination levels beyond legally allowable limits, Duke successfully lobbied lawmakers to enact a change in law that allowed the power company “to avoid any costly cleanup of contaminated groundwater leaching from its unlined dumps toward rivers, lakes and the drinking wells of nearby homeowners” [Associated Press, 3/17/14]

    W. Va Toxic Chemical Spill Related To “Culture Of Deregulation.” The editor of Corporate Crime Reporter Russell Mokhiber attributed a coal processing plant spill in West Virginia, which left 300,000 residents without clean drinking water, to a “culture of deregulation.” Mokhiber said in an interview with Moyers & Company that "[t]he chemical and coal industries have a stranglehold on most institutions in the state." [Moyers & Co, 1/16/14]

    The Coal Industry Has Funneled Millions To Anti-Regulatory Candidates, Many Of Whom Blamed Obama For The “War On Coal.” Many of the candidates who have blamed President Obama for the “war on coal” in major U.S. newspapers have received campaign funds for the 2014 election cycle from from the coal industry:

    • Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), cited or quoted in 49 articles, has received $251,600  [Open Secrets, accessed 12/2/14]
    • Rep. Steve Daines (R-MO), quoted in two articles, has received $91,000 [Open Secrets, accessed 12/2/14]
    • Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), cited or quoted in two articles, has received $206,658 [Open Secrets, accessed 12/2/14Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), cited or quoted in two articles, has received $116,300 [Open Secrets, accessed 12/2/14]
    • Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), cited or quoted in two articles, has received $324,198 [Open Secrets, accessed 12/2/14]

    War On Coal Sound Bite Obscures Issues Facing The Coal Industry

    War On Coal Is A Sound Bite, Not A Policy. During the 2012 presidential election, Associated Press reporter Vicki Smith wrote an article headlined, "'War on coal' label obscures battlefield realities" that described the phrase “war on coal” as “a sound bite and headline, perpetuated by pundits, power companies and public relations consultants who have crafted a neat label for a complex set of realities, one that compels people to choose sides.” [Associated Press, 10/20/12]

    Charleston Gazette Reporter: War on Coal Rhetoric Obscures Issues Facing Coal Industry. In his Coal Tattoo blog for The Charleston Gazette, reporter Ken Ward, Jr. wrote that during the 2012 presidential campaign, the media became so accustomed to falling in line with “war on coal” rhetoric that  “much -- not all, but much -- of the media coverage of coal issues during last year's presidential election failed to ask hard questions and present clear facts that voters could use to make decisions at the polls.” In a separate post, Ward listed the facts and issues that have failed to receive attention amid the “war on coal” narrative:

    - There are plenty of reasons to be worried about the coal industry's impacts on environment and public health. There's the clear science showing mountaintop removal's pervasive and irreversible impacts on the region's environment. There's the growing evidence linking mountaintop removal to serious health problems, including cancer and birth defects. And there's the overwhelming evidence tying the burning of coal to a variety of other serious health problems and premature deaths.

    - While coal provides good-paying jobs to a fortunate, but ever-declining few in Appalachia, the last decade has seen the return of coal mining disasters at Sago, Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon and Upper Big Branch. And far, far more miners die -- 10,000 in a recent decade -- from black lung, a deadly disease that's on the rise again in our region.

    - Coal is a major contributor to global warming pollution, a matter that most scientists consider a grave threat to humanity.  The only way to keep using coal and combat climate change at the same time is to deploy carbon capture and storage technology broadly on power plants around the world.  Experts agree that won't happen unless there are binding emissions reductions -- something the Obama administration has proposed for new power plants in a rule that's the latest step by EPA to prompt ridiculous rhetoric from folks in the industry.

    - In Central Appalachian -- meaning Southern West Virginia -- coal production is in the midst of a serious decline that's likely to see output cut in half by the end of this decade.  This trend will hit the region hard, but just try to get Sen. Manchin or Gov. Tomblin on the record about it or about their plans for seeing the state and its residents safely through this turmoil. As has been well documented, this trend has little to do with government regulations, but you won't hear that from our political leaders.

    The reality is that, for all of the talk about coal during this year's campaigns, these crucial issues haven't gotten that much attention. [The Charleston Gazette, 7/3/13;11/6/12]

    METHODOLOGY: Media Matters analyzed newspaper coverage of the “war on coal” via Nexis' list of “newspapers published in the United States that are listed in the top 50 in circulation in Editor & Publisher Year Book” and The Wall Street Journal from January 1 to November 30, 2014. We searched using the sources “Major US Newspapers” in Nexis and The Wall Street Journal in Factiva for any news articles that mentioned the phrase “war on coal.” Our analysis excluded letters to the editor and included only news articles, op-eds, and editorials mentioning the phrase.