By Aaron Huertas, Union of Concerned Scientists
What should journalists do when powerful institutions and politicians mangle and manipulate information about climate and energy issues? One of our intrepid researchers took a look at a particularly notorious example: last year’s U.S. Chamber of Commerce analysis of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. His findings suggest some important lessons for critically examining claims around complex climate and energy policies, especially as states move forward with reducing emissions under the EPA plan.
A flawed analysis, days before the EPA even released a draft plan
Even with robust fact checking, a bad study or analysis can enjoy a few brief moments in the political and media spotlight before it is debunked. Lobbyists and public relations professionals at institutions like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce know this. That’s why they released a May 2014 study that grossly overstated the costs and ignored the benefits of the Clean Power Plan a full week before the EPA made its draft plan available to the public.
The Chamber skewed the results of its analysis in a few big ways: first, misreading statements from Obama administration officials to come up with a guess about how much the plan would cut emissions; second, assuming that the agency would require states to comply in one of the most costly ways possible; and, finally, failing to account for any benefits from reducing emissions.
The same day the Chamber released its report, the EPA pointed out its flaws, emphasizing, in particular, that the agency was not going to require natural gas plants to install carbon capture and storage technology, an assumption that comprised about 70 percent of the costs the Chamber baked into its analysis.
Despite these tell-tale signs of bunk, policymakers opposed to the plan uncritically cited the misleading study when the EPA released its real draft plan the following week. Doing so earned them 4 out of 4 “Pinocchios” from the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, run by Glenn Kessler. Kessler concluded that based on the information that was available, policymakers “should have avoided using the Chamber’s numbers in the first place.”
How can journalists help their readers put misinformation in context?
Eric Pooley has some suggestions. He’s a former business journalist and the author of an indispensible chronicle of the cap-and-trade debate in Congress; he now works at the Environmental Defense Fund. In 2009, he wrote a discussion paper in which he argued that there were usually three ways journalists handled suspect economic claims:
- One-sided coverage that repeats a claim with no critical examination
- Balanced coverage that repeats a claim and offers a counter-point from another source
- Refereeing the claim itself by critically examining it to qualify it or dismiss its validity
Obviously, Pooley is a big fan of #3. Me too.
Of course, it can be tough for journalists to find the time to write stories that fall into the third category, especially in an era where they’re expected to rapidly produce so much content for their audiences. That’s why it’s often up to fact-checkers, watchdogs and independent analysts to quickly and vigorously debunk misinformation from special interests.
So how did they do?
Sean Reville, a research intern working with our energy team, spent the past several weeks reviewing coverage of the Chamber analysis across 20 media outlets and ranked the news and opinion pieces he found against Pooley’s criteria, with feedback from me and our colleague Dave Anderson. He looked at several national outlets, including wire services, the Washington Post and New York Times, as well as a few Beltway-focused publication, some Midwest and Appalachian papers, and liberal and conservative-leaning news websites.
Although Reville’s research didn’t constitute a formal analysis, I thought what he found was interesting and worth sharing publicly. (See a spreadsheet of the coverage along with some commentary on how Reville researched and coded it.)
Overall, he found that national news reporters were much more likely to cover the study through balance or refereeing the claims. Opinion pieces, on the other hand, were naturally a mixed bag. EPA opponents tended to offer a one-sided endorsement of the Chamber’s analysis while proponents critically debunked it.
Many of the articles that fell into category one were opinion pieces, such as a May 31 USA Today op-ed from Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who repeated the Chamber’s numbers and warned that they were just “the tip of the iceberg” — an ironic cliché to use given the topic.
A May 28 article from The Hill on the release of the Chamber study was typical of balanced coverage. After describing the Chamber’s findings, author Benjamin Goad cited the EPA’s immediate pushback:
The EPA bristled at the report, saying it is unfounded and based on speculation, since the details of the proposal would not be made public until next week.
Many later articles – in which reporters and opinion writers “refereed” the Chamber’s claims – stated the limitations of the study as fact. For instance, the Wall Street Journal’s Amy Harder described the study this way when writing about a letter from legislators that cited it:
That study, which was released last week before EPA proposed its rule, relied on assumptions that proved not to be the case within the draft regulation.
After reading through all these articles, Reville thought that the analysis clearly had an effect on policymakers and media coverage. “The Chamber was able to use a flawed analysis to dictate much of the initial focus of the conversation surround the Clean Power Plan,” he said. Indeed, coverage of the Chamber’s report peaked on the June 2, the same day the EPA made its draft Clean Power Plan available to the public.
He was also surprised to see that some outlets simply stopped citing the study after debunking it. Bloomberg, for instance, covered the study once, examined its flaws and never cited it again, despite policymakers continuing to do so. The Washington Post also stopped citing the study after its in-house fact-checking team debunked it.
These findings suggest that fact checking matters and that full-time fact-checking positions remain a valuable tool for journalists.
That said, the Chamber’s analysis has enjoyed a long shelf-life. It even popped up again recently in an Associated Press story as Reville was wrapping up his review.
Framing still tends to pit the climate against the economy
Reville also took a look at which arguments were most prevalent in the articles examined when it came to speaking out for or against the Clean Power Plan. While much of the coverage pitted economics costs against climate benefits, it was good to see that points about the economic benefits of climate action were also reflected in coverage.
Other business voices support climate action
According to investigative journalist Alyssa Katz’s new book on the Chamber, the organization evolved over the decades from a sleepy, consensus-based policy group to a lobby-shop for companies, including tobacco, health insurance, and fossil fuel extractors, that don’t want their names attached to fighting legislation that would reduce harms from their products.
We don’t know which of the Chamber’s members underwrote its analysis or the group’s broader campaign against the Clean Power Plan. While the Chamber has an Energy, Clean Air, and Natural Resources Committee that is responsible for its work on climate and energy, it doesn’t disclose which corporations serve as committee members.
Since the Chamber is so opaque, it’s harder for reporters, policymakers and the public to evaluate its work. Indeed, several companies, when pressed by advocates and journalists, distanced themselves from the Chamber on the Clean Power Plan. More broadly, companies are often hesitant to acknowledge their affiliations with the Chamber, even when they are already publicly known. Nonetheless, the Chamber continues to claim to represent businesses broadly.
The good news is that there are plenty of business voices that are engaging on climate issues, including CERES and the U.S. Business Roundtable. Clean energy jobs arguments are also gaining traction as more and more people join the ranks of the solar and wind industries.
We deserve a fair and open debate about climate policy, not brazen misinformation campaigns from companies that are too ashamed to attach their names to the Chamber’s work. Policymakers and journalists should continue to view the Chamber’s claims with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially as states move forward with implementing the Clean Power Plan.