STUDY: Media Overlooked Keystone XL Risks Even After Arkansas Spill

A Media Matters analysis of news coverage of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline since the 2012 election shows that the media continue to largely ignore the risk of an oil spill, while promoting the economic benefits of the project. Meanwhile, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal have dismissed Keystone XL's climate impacts, instead serving as a platform for the pipeline's champions.

TV Media Hyped Economic Benefits, Ignored Spill Risks

TV Outlets Mentioned Jobs Benefits Twice As Often As Spill Risks. Television outlets overlooked the threat of Keystone XL to the sensitive ecosystems along the pipeline route, mentioning the risk of a spill in just 20 percent of coverage since Election Day, November 6, 2012. Meanwhile, 43 percent of television coverage promoted the jobs benefits of the pipeline, and 27 percent incorrectly suggested it would reduce our dependence on Middle East oil.

Chart: TV Media Hyped Economic Benefits, Ignored Spill Risks

This disparity was most striking on Fox News, which mentioned job creation in 63 percent of Keystone XL coverage and never mentioned the possibility of a spill without downplaying the risk.

Print outlets mentioned the risk of a spill slightly more, in 34 percent of coverage -- more than jobs (30 percent) or energy security (27 percent).

Significant Concerns Remain About The Risk Of A Spill Along Pipeline Route. The Keystone XL pipeline has faced opposition from landowners and environmentalists in part due to the risk of a spill along the pipeline route, which crosses the Ogallala Aquifer, a major source of drinking water for the region, and an ecological area vulnerable to spills. If a spill reached the aquifer, it would be difficult to clean up because unlike conventional light crude, crude derived from tar sands sinks in water. According to environmental groups, it could also be more corrosive to pipelines than conventional oil, which would make the Keystone XL pipeline more prone to leaks. And if a leak does occur, there are questions about TransCanada's ability to respond quickly and effectively, given its poor safety record. The consequences of a potential spill were illustrated last month when a ruptured pipeline in Arkansas spewed thousands of barrels of tar sands oil into a residential community, forcing evacuations and harming wildlife.

But since that spill, ABC, CBS and Fox News have not noted that Keystone XL, which would carry the same type of heavy crude, could have similar consequences if it leaked. Overall, discussion of the spill risks associated with Keystone XL has not increased since a 2011 Media Matters analysis, despite the Arkansas spill. [Reuters, 4/1/13] [Media Matters, 2/14/13] [Media Matters, 1/26/12]

News Corp. Outlets Obscured Keystone XL's Climate Impact

Fox News And Wall Street Journal Dismissed Climate Concerns. Fox News and the Wall Street Journal -- both owned by News Corporation -- mentioned Keystone XL's climate impact significantly less than other outlets, and often denied it altogether. Only 17 percent of Fox News coverage and 19 percent of Wall Street Journal coverage mentioned climate concerns without explicitly dismissing them.

Chart: News Corp. Covered Climate Risks Of Keystone XL Far Less Than Others

Scientists Shut Out Of Pipeline Debate, Even As Climate Impacts Garnered Coverage. Much of the recent media coverage around Keystone XL has been driven by concerns about the project's potential impact on climate change, which were voiced at a massive protest in Washington earlier this year. Compared to a previous Media Matters analysis, the media's focus on the climate risks associated with the pipeline has increased significantly: climate change was mentioned in 38 percent of television coverage (up from only 9 percent in 2011) and 57 percent of print coverage (up from 34 percent).Despite increased attention to Keystone XL's implications for climate change, media outlets rarely featured climate scientists, turning instead to politicians, media figures, environmentalists and industry groups:

Chart: Scientists Shut Out Of Pipeline Debate

Scientists accounted for less than 1 percent of those hosted or quoted by TV outlets and less than 4 percent of those quoted by the major papers. CNN was the only television outlet to quote a scientist about the pipeline, and it was Patrick Michaels -- a prominent climate contrarian who receives funding from the oil industry. The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal did not quote a single scientist. Eighteen prominent climate scientists have expressed opposition to the pipeline. [Reuters, 2/17/13] [Media Matters, 1/26/12] [Media Matters, 11/28/12] [Skeptical Science, 2/8/13]

Fair And Balanced? Fox News Served As A Platform For Pipeline Proponents

Fox News Featured Five Times More Supporters Of Keystone XL. Pipeline proponents vastly outnumbered critics on Fox News: 76 percent of those hosted or quoted about Keystone XL supported the project, and only 13 percent opposed it.

Chart: Fox News Featured Five Times More Supporters Of Keystone XL

Overall, TV and print outlets featured an even number of pipeline supporters and opponents, an improvement from a previous Media Matters analysis. [Media Matters, 1/26/12]

Fox News Only Hosted Politicians Who Support The Pipeline. Seventy percent of the politicians hosted or quoted on Fox News about Keystone XL were Republicans, all of whom expressed support for the pipeline. Excluding President Obama, the only Democrat quoted on Keystone XL was Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), who supports the project. The politicians who advocated for Keystone XL on Fox News collectively received more than $1.7 million from oil and gas industry PACs from 2008-2012.

Overall, media outlets quoted a nearly even number of Republicans and Democrats.


This report analyzes print and television coverage of the Keystone XL pipeline between the presidential election on November 6, 2012 and April 15, 2013. Our results are based on a Nexis or Factiva search of six major print outlets (New York TimesWashington PostUSA TodayLos Angeles Times, Associated Press and Wall Street Journal), the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), CNN and the primetime shows on MSNBC and Fox (daytime shows for these networks are not available in Nexis).

For print outlets, we searched Nexis for “Keystone XL” and included both news and opinion items, but excluded web-only content. For television networks, we searched for “Keystone and pipeline.” Our analysis includes any article or segment devoted to the pipeline, as well as any substantial mention (more than one paragraph of an article or news transcript.) The following chart displays the coverage included in our study:

Chart: Total Coverage By Outlet

Political donations from the oil and gas industry were calculated using the Center for Responsive Politics', and include funds from industry PACs (not individual employees) to politicians' campaign committees and leadership PACs from 2008-2012. does not have donation records for Governor Dave Heineman (R-NE), a one-time Fox guest during the study period, or 2008 donations to Rep. Lee Terry's (R-NE) leadership PAC.

Max Greenberg contributed to this report.