STUDY: The Press And The Pipeline

A Media Matters analysis shows that as a whole, news coverage of the Keystone XL pipeline between August 1 and December 31 favored pipeline proponents. Although the project would create few long-term employment opportunities, the pipeline was primarily portrayed as a jobs issue. Pro-pipeline voices were quoted more frequently than those opposed, and dubious industry estimates of job creation were uncritically repeated 5 times more often than they were questioned. Meanwhile, concerns about the State Department's review process and potential environmental consequences were often overlooked, particularly by television outlets.

Pro-Pipeline Voices Were Quoted More Frequently

All But Two Major News Outlets Quoted More Pipeline Supporters Than Opponents. With the exceptions of USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, every news outlet included in this study quoted or hosted more people in favor of the pipeline than opposed.

  • BROADCAST: Among the broadcast networks, 79% of those quoted or interviewed were in favor of the pipeline. NBC and ABC did not quote anyone opposed.
  • CABLE: On Fox News, 66% of those quoted or hosted were in favor and 13% were opposed. CNN featured 54% in favor and only 14% opposed. MSNBC was the most balanced, with 38% in favor and 31% opposed.
  • PRINT: Of those quoted by the major newspapers, 45% were in favor of the pipeline and 31% were opposed. The New York Times was the most balanced, quoting 35% in favor and 27% opposed. The Wall Street Journal was the least balanced, with 52% in favor and 21% opposed.

Op-Eds/Editorials Supporting Keystone XL Outweighed Those Opposed. The editorial boards of the Washington Post, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal have come out in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline. Those three newspapers published 16 op-eds or editorials supporting the pipeline and only one opposed. All together, the print outlets published 19 op-eds or editorials in favor of the project and 10 opposed. The New York Times editorial board took a stance against the pipeline.

TV News Coverage Mirrored Pipeline Proponents' Preferred Framing

Media Framed Pipeline As A Jobs Issue. Although the pipeline would lead to a small number of long-term jobs, the potential for job creation from the pipeline was mentioned in 68% of print coverage, 67% of broadcast coverage and 75% of cable coverage.

  • BROADCAST: All three broadcast networks mentioned jobs more than any other issue we tracked in the Keystone XL debate. CBS topped the list, discussing jobs in 75% of its coverage.
  • CABLE: Fox News mentioned jobs in 85% of its coverage -- more than any other television network. Both Fox and CNN covered jobs more than all the other issues we measured combined. Only MSNBC mentioned environmental factors more often than jobs.
  • PRINT: USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal covered jobs more than any other issue we tracked. The Los Angeles Times mentioned jobs in 86% of its coverage, topping all other media outlets included in our analysis.

Media Repeated Industry's Inflated Job Numbers

Industry Job Estimates Have Been Widely Discredited. TransCanada, the Canadian company behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, has long pushed the message that the project would “directly create more than 20,000 high-wage manufacturing jobs and construction jobs in 2011-2012 across the U.S.” as well as “118,000 spin-off jobs,” and up to 553,000 jobs “stemming from a permanent increase in stable oil supplies.” At times TransCanada used the term “jobs” to refer to what was actually an estimate of “person-years of employment,” and the press rarely explained the difference. Some of TransCanada's figures come from a study that independent analysts have called "dead wrong," "meaningless," "flawed and poorly documented." A Bloomberg Government analysis found that TransCanada's estimate of direct job creation per mile is higher than what took place during construction of the pipeline TransCanada completed in 2010, indicating that the company either “intends to hire more workers [per mile] for shorter periods of time, or that the company's construction crew and jobs figures are overstated, compared with earlier stages of the Keystone project.” The State Department estimated that “the construction work force would consist of approximately 5,000 to 6,000 workers,” and said the project “would not have a significant impact on long-term employment.”

Media Uncritically Repeated Industry Job Estimates 76 Times. Every news outlet included in our analysis uncritically repeated TransCanada's jobs numbers at least once. The major print outlets did so 34 times - in 29% of the Keystone XL articles mentioning jobs -- with the Associated Press accounting for almost half of those instances. The broadcast networks repeated these figures 4 times -- one third of the times jobs were mentioned. And the cable networks did so 38 times -- 45% of the coverage mentioning jobs. Fox News uncritically repeated these numbers more than all the other television networks combined.

By Contrast, Criticisms Of These Figures Were Rarely Mentioned. Criticisms of the industry job estimates were included a total of 6 times in the print coverage, or 5% of the print coverage that mentioned jobs. The cable outlets covered the criticisms a total of 9 times, or 11% of cable coverage that mentioned jobs. All together, the outlets uncritically passed along TransCanada's numbers 5 times more often than they mentioned criticisms of those numbers.

TV Media Downplayed Environmental Risks

Keystone XL Prompted Serious Environmental Concerns. The original Keystone XL pipeline route would cross through the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, a "sensitive ecosystem" sitting atop the Ogallala Aquifer, a major source of drinking water for the region. Given that the existing Keystone pipeline has “experienced 14 spills since it began operation,” including a major spill of 21,000 gallons, many are concerned about the potential for groundwater contamination if the oil were to spill. This concern is amplified by reports that PHMSA, the agency responsible for overseeing pipeline safety, is chronically understaffed and toothless. Before Congressional Republicans imposed a decision deadline on the Obama administration, TransCanada, the state of Nebraska, and the State Department had agreed to consider an alternative route around the Sand Hills. Others object to the pipeline because it signifies a long-term commitment to the unconventional production of fossil fuels that drive climate change. EPA initially criticized the State Department for not fully assessing the pipeline's impact on climate change, noting that developing tar sands oil is 82% more carbon intensive than the average crude refined in the U.S.

TV Coverage Often Overlooked Environmental Risks. While the Keystone XL pipeline debate was often framed as a 'jobs versus environment' issue, specific environmental concerns were only mentioned in 34% of cable coverage and 17% of broadcast coverage. Specifically, the threat posed by the pipeline to the Ogallala Aquifer was mentioned in 16% of cable coverage and 17% of the broadcast coverage, while climate change was mentioned in 10% of cable coverage and 6% of broadcast coverage.

  • BROADCAST: Of the broadcast networks, ABC mentioned environmental concerns the most -- in a third (33%) of its coverage. NBC didn't mention specific environmental concerns at all. Climate change was only mentioned once, on CBS.
  • CABLE: MSNBC was the only cable network to discuss environmental concerns more than any other issue -- in 50% of its coverage. CNN covered environmental concerns the least, in less than a quarter (22%) of its coverage. And while Fox News mentioned environmental factors in a third (33%) of its coverage, it was often to dismiss these concerns.

Media Failed To Report EPA's Criticism Of Environmental Review. The EPA repeatedly challenged the State Department's preliminary Environmental Impact Statement. Calling the State Department's draft review "inadequate," the EPA recommended a more thorough analysis of the pipeline's potential environmental impact. The State Department issued a Supplemental Draft EIS in April 2011 which addressed comments from EPA and other federal agencies, but again the EPA called the review “insufficient” and recommended further analysis. The State Department released its final EIS in August 2011 -- prior to postponing a decision on the project -- and the EPA has not commented on the document. Of the 9 television segments that mentioned the State Department's review, none mentioned EPA's earlier criticisms. Only 30% of print items mentioning the EIS noted EPA's criticisms. Excluding the New York Times, this number drops to 14%.

News Corp. Turned A Blind Eye To Pipeline Protests. A string of large demonstrations against the Keystone XL pipeline took place throughout the fall. These protests were mentioned in 29% of print coverage, 22% of broadcast coverage, and 21% of cable coverage. The Wall Street Journal and Fox News -- both owned by News Corporation -- covered the protests the least, in only 15% of their coverage.

Media Advanced Claims That The Pipeline Would Bolster Energy Security

Significance Of Pipeline To Energy Security Is Disputed. TransCanada has said that its pipeline would increase U.S. energy security by displacing imports from countries deemed less friendly to the U.S. According to the Congressional Research Service, “it may be possible for Canadian oil supplies to effectively 'push out' waterborne shipments from other countries, although this depends on a wide range of market conditions.” CRS also noted that “Apart from Keystone XL, several other pipeline proposals could help carry growing Canadian crude oil supplies to the U.S. Gulf Coast,” and pointed out that “even if Keystone XL is built, prices for the crude oil it carries” will “continue to be affected by international events.” Indeed, the benefit to American consumers of any shift in U.S. import sources that could be attributed to the Keystone XL pipeline is far from clear. As the Council on Foreign Relations' Michael Levi has noted, “U.S. vulnerability to turmoil in the Middle East is linked to how much oil we consume, not where we buy it from.” The pipeline would do very little to shield the U.S. economy from high and volatile prices.

Print Media Frequently Touted Keystone XL As A Step Towards U.S. Energy Security. The purported contribution from the Keystone XL pipeline to American energy security was mentioned in 52% of print coverage, 22% of broadcast coverage, and 28% of cable coverage. USA Today, whose editorial board supports the pipeline, mentioned energy security in 67% of its coverage, more than any other print outlet. Fox News mentioned it more than all the other television networks combined. Only items in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times questioned the energy security benefits of the pipeline.

Allegations Of Bias Garnered Small Amount Of Coverage

Questions Have Been Raised About State Department Impartiality. Concerns about the rigor of the State Department's approval process arose almost a year before the Environmental Impact Statement was completed, when Secretary Clinton said that her office was “inclined” to sign off on the pipeline. In addition, the State Department's EIS was prepared by consulting firm Cardno Entrix, which lists TransCanada as a client, raising concerns among legal experts. A series of documents obtained by Wikileaks and Friends of the Earth also revealed a cozy and collaborative relationship between some State Department officials and TransCanada, including examples of agency officials coaching the corporation on how to make the strongest case for its pipeline. The inspector general is currently investigating the State Department's handling of the Keystone XL review.

Media Rarely Mentioned Concerns About Bias, Conflict Of Interest. These issues were mentioned in 20% of print coverage, 7% of cable coverage and 6% of broadcast coverage. Among print outlets, the Wall Street Journal covered these issues the least (11%). Among the cable outlets, CNN mentioned them the least (5%), with Fox News not far behind (6%). NBC and ABC did not cover them at all.


This report analyzes print and television coverage of the Keystone XL pipeline between August 1, 2011 and December 31, 2011. Our results are based on a Nexis or Factiva search of six major print outlets (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and Wall Street Journal), the major broadcast networks (ABC, NBC and CBS), 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: