It's All About the Framing: How Polls and the Media Misrepresent the Keystone XL [Tar Sands] [Oil] Pipeline

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It's All About the Framing: How Polls and the Media Misrepresent the Keystone XL [Tar Sands] [Oil] Pipeline

First of all, you won’t find tar sands mentioned in any of the polling.  And in most polls, you won’t even find oil.  It’s just the Keystone XL pipeline, no context, no mention of what it will carry, and certainly no mention of the environmental risks of building a massive pipeline to carry toxic tar sands sludge through the heartland of America to the gulf of Mexico, where it would be exported out of the U.S. 

The question asked by two recent polls, one by Rasmussen and the other by the National Journal, was more or less, “Do you support or oppose building the Keystone XL pipeline?”   And the Rasmussen poll also asks if job creation is more important than protecting the environment, posing these two goals as  oppositional. 

Most Americans don't see it that way.  In our opinion research and other opinion research, such as the major new survey in the West, Americans overwhelmingly believe that a strong economy and the environment can go hand in hand.  And they show a real concern for protecting resources, such as our water supply, from degradation.  But both the Rasmussen and the National Journal polls show a majority of Americans in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline.

But are they really?    

What if the pollsters changed the question to more accurately represent the actual project and inserted “tar sands oil pipeline”?  What if they described to the public that the pipeline would jeopardize one of America’s most important freshwater aquifers, the Ogallala?  What if they were told that a first pipeline just like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and built by the same foreign company, TransCanada, had had over 12 spills in the U.S. (30 if you count Canada) in just its first year of operation?  What if they were told that the oil is not really oil but a toxic sludge that is largely strip mined from under the Boreal forest in Canada and has to be diluted with toxic chemicals and pushed through pipelines at high temperature and pressure in pipelines only regulated to carry conventional oil?  And what if the public were given the opportunity to choose a tar sands oil pipeline or increasing our reliance on homegrown renewable energy?

No poll has set this tar sands pipeline in any kind of context.  Instead most of the questions are preceded or followed by generic questions about jobs and the economy or with questions about whether the country is going in the right direction. 

So, without context, what do you think most Americans would first think of when asked about a pipeline? 

Jobs and the economy. 

And that is just the framing they have also been hearing again and again from the media. 

Take jobs as an example.  Job creation has been the major argument put forward by pipeline proponents.  Even though TransCanada is on record admitting that there would in fact be no more than 6,500 jobs over two years and only hundreds of permanent jobs, that has not stopped the company, the American Petroleum Institute, Republicans on the Hill and the Republican Presidential candidates from saying the pipeline would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and putting it forward as a national jobs plan rather than the single construction project that it is.  The jobs estimates have been so wild that Stephen Colbert couldn’t resist poking fun at the million jobs pipeline. 

Lots of Americans are suffering right now and jobs creation must be a top priority but at what price and who benefits?  The one independent study that has been done on the jobs issue, by Cornell Global Labor Institute, found that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would be a jobs killer because it would suppress clean energy jobs and because inevitable spills would cost jobs in other sectors of the economy.   When all of the risk is being underwritten by American families and the major beneficiaries are the major oil companies, you have to ask is this good for our economy in the long run?  Roger Toussaint of the Transit Workers of America said it best when he said, “We want jobs but not as gravediggers for the planet”.   

So let’s dig in a bit regarding what the public has been hearing.

Media Matters, a nonprofit organization that tracks the media, released a survey that analyzed coverage of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from August 1 to December 31, 2011.  They found that the media overwhelmingly framed the pipeline as a jobs issue.  In 33% of the broadcast coverage, the highly inflated jobs numbers were repeated verbatim.  In none of this coverage was any criticism of those figures mentioned.  It was not much better for cable news.  In 45% of the coverage, the figures were repeated verbatim.  And only 11% of the coverage mentioned any criticism.  Fox News repeated the jobs numbers more than all the other TV networks combined.  Print news was not much better, with 29% repeating the jobs figures verbatim and only 5% mentioning any criticism.

It also seems to matter who you interview.

Here is a figure that really made me shake my head  -- 79% of the time, broadcast news reporting on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline interviewed a pipeline proponent.  Only 7% of the time did they interview a tar sands pipeline opponent.  Cable news was not much better:  59% of the coverage featured proponents and only 16% featured opponents.  Print news did slightly better with 45% featuring proponents and 31% featuring opponents. 

And this was over the period of time when there were 1250 peaceful protesters arrested in front of the White House and then a few months later when nearly 15,000 people gathered and encircled the White House opposing the pipeline.   It was during the months when an Inspector General investigation was launched into the State Department mishandling of the environmental review. And it covered the period when the President declared that more environmental studies needed to be conducted to understand the risks of the pipeline to the American public and find a new route that avoided the sensitive Ogallala and Sandhills regions of Nebraska. 

Media Matters collected data on how jobs and energy security mentions compared to environmental mentions.  In broadcast, cable, and print respectively, jobs were mentioned 67%, 77%, and 68% of the time.  Energy security was mentioned 22%, 28%, and 54% respectively.  And environment was mentioned 17%, 34%, and 65%.  Coverage of the State Department mishandling of the review process was scarcely mentioned at all.

What’s more is that since Media Matters did their survey, the rhetoric around the pipeline has become even more extreme and even venues like the New York Times, which has been one of the exceptions in providing fair coverage of the pipeline, are running political stories about the pipeline that don’t include any environmental perspective

So it is not surprising that when Americans are polled by Rasmussen and the National Journal, where they throw out a few quick questions or maybe just one question on the pipeline, we’re getting higher than expected levels of support.  Given the Media Matters survey, I am frankly surprised the numbers aren’t worse.

I went to google Speaker Boehner’s statements on Keystone XL and I found that “Keystone” is actually one of the words most frequently associated with the Speaker (after crying, birthday song, and payroll taxes). That’s because he and the Republicans in Congress have taken up the pipeline as a holy crucible.  The reality is that the “Keystone Energy Project” – as he likes to describe it (notice we lose even the mention of pipeline) – is the top bidding of the oil industry.  After defeating the climate legislation on the Hill, there has been no higher priority.   And in addition to the lopsided media coverage, Americans have also been deluged with ads about the benefits of the pipeline.  

Fortunately, most Americans have a heavy dose of skepticism when it comes to the oil industry.  So maybe, just maybe, when people hear the pollsters’ question, they hesitate for a moment and wonder what is all this pipeline fuss really about

So what can we conclude?  I’d wager that if you ask people if they think building a new pipeline will create jobs, they will inevitably say yes.  But if you were to provide context and ask them if they wanted to risk their drinking water, greater energy self-reliance, and providing a future for our kids that does not trade off our climate and drinking water to line the pockets of the multi-national oil companies, I suspect they’d say no.   

There desperately needs to be an improvement in both poll taking and in media coverage so that there can be a fair and balanced debate about this tar sands mega pipeline.  So far, the debate has been anything but balanced and that does the American public a great disservice. 

Addendum:  On February 6, Politico reported that a Hart poll showed that once independents better understand the pro and con arguments for the tar sands pipeline, they agree with the President's decision to delay the pipeline by a margin of 47% to 36% (Democrats are already on side in strong margins).  They are particularly concerned that risks to water supplies from pipeline spills, especially over the heartland's Ogallala aquifer, be addressed.  The poll was conducted in late January in Colorado, Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio.

Liz Barratt-Brown

Liz Barratt-Brown has worked with NRDC’s International Program for the last 15 years. When Liz first came to NRDC, she worked with Canadians to stem acid rain. More recently, she has worked to protect its ancient forests – from the coastal rainforests of British Columbia to the Boreal forest that circles the top of the planet.  Right now she is working on the Alberta tar sands, an area of the boreal forest that is being torn up to produce oil to feed our relentless thirst for our cars, airplanes and trucks.

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