Last week, gas prices reached a new high national average of $5 a gallon. A review of articles discussing surging gas prices, from the print edition of the top 5 U.S. newspapers from June 10 through June 16, found that while costs to consumers are widely reported, the record profits these high gas prices are yielding for Big Oil companies is not. Only 6 of the 26 articles reviewed mentioned oil company profits, while none quantified the record earnings of oil majors like ExxonMobil.
During a press conference in Los Angeles on June 10, President Joe Biden responded to a question on high gas prices — an issue that has been top of mind for Americans and the media since prices started to climb in response to increased demand due to relaxed COVID-19 restrictions and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine — by pointing to the record profits of Big Oil giants like ExxonMobil. As reported by Business Insider:
"We're gonna make sure that everybody knows Exxon's profits," Biden said in response to a question after the conclusion of a speech in California about rising inflation. "Exxon made more money than God this year and, by the way, nothing has changed."
In fact, Exxon Mobil’s first quarter earnings were $5.5 billion — more than double its earnings in the first quarter of 2021. Its Big Oil peers fared equally as well. “Shell notched its strongest quarterly profit ever, and Chevron posted its best earnings quarter in nearly a decade,” as Business Insider noted. BP had its highest earnings in more than decade, even despite losses from pulling its operations out of Russia. ConocoPhillips’ profits in the first quarter of 2022 saw a five-fold increase from the year prior. Together, the big five oil corporations made $35 billion in a span of three months — representing a 300% increase from the year before. Most notably, these earnings are resulting in huge returns for shareholders rather than being used to invest in bringing costs down for consumers.
Biden’s June statement was not the first time he or others have contrasted the enormous earnings of oil corporations with the escalating cost consumers are paying for gas. In March, in response to a temporary dip in oil prices, Biden pointed out the discrepancy between those costs and high fuel prices. In early April, congressional Democrats on the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee led a hearing on the oil industry’s role in driving record high gas prices and earning record profits. And in response to first quarter earnings that painfully illustrate how well oil companies are faring at a time when many Americans are hurting from rising energy costs, a number of experts and legislators have weighed in.
Yet newspapers are not consistently using these record profits to contextualize high gas prices.
Media Matters analyzed 26 articles on high gas prices published from June 10-16 in the print editions of the five largest U.S. newspapers by circulation: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. Media Matters coded the articles based on whether they included context about the record profits that oil companies are earning as a result of sustained high global oil prices.
We found that only 6 (23%) of the 26 articles analyzed made mention of oil company profits in coverage discussing the record high gas prices that are hurting consumers at the pump and through inflation. Notably, of the 6 articles that mentioned oil company profits, none quantified the recent record earnings of oil companies.
This context is an essential part of gas price coverage not simply because it illustrates who is benefiting from wartime gas prices, but also because these profits are fundamental in understanding the role of oil companies in sustaining high prices and the options available for holding these companies accountable — which should be a mainstay of gas price coverage.
Moreover, this sustained period of painfully high gas prices and its accompanying coverage should make the American public far more conversant on the issues associated with reliance on a global commodity that is controlled by a handful of huge corporations and largely concentrated in countries run by despotic leaders. But by keeping the emphasis mostly on who is losing when prices are high rather than who is winning, newspapers are giving readers only half the story.
Media Matters searched print articles in the Factiva database for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today for any of the terms “fuel,” “pump,” “diesel,” “tank,” or “gallon” or any variation of the term “gas” and any of the terms “record,” “cost,” “price,” “skyrocket,” or “spike” or any variation of any of the terms “soar,” “high,” “increase,” “surge,” or “inflate” in the headline or lead paragraph from June 10, 2022, when President Joe Biden directly connected record oil industry profits to record gas prices, through June 16, 2022.
We counted resulting news articles, which we defined as instances when an article in a news section mentioned rising gas prices in the headline or lead paragraph. We did not include editorials, op-eds, or letters to the editor.
We then reviewed all identified articles for whether they included context about record oil industry profits, which we defined as any mention of oil company profits. We also reviewed whether those mentions then quantified oil company profits for 2022.