Little Context for Obama Energy Speech in Ohio

Local reports present a war of words without much fact checking

Unchecked accusations about gas prices and oil production defined local coverage of President Barack Obama’s speech at Ohio State University last week, the final stop on a four-state tour promoting his administration’s energy policy.

The president’s address—which followed a visit to the university’s Center for Automotive Research, where he viewed the Buckeye Bullet, the world’s fastest electric car—touted his “all of the above” strategy to advance renewable energy sources as well as natural gas and oil production. Unfortunately, many local papers produced unhelpful stories that simply pitted Obama’s statements against disparaging remarks from Republicans without doing any fact checking or adding any context.

Coverage from The Columbus Dispatch, four miles from the Ohio State campus, epitomized this problem. The top half of the Dispatch’s article, which ran the day after Obama’s speech, was a colorful description of the president’s visit, following which reporters Joe Hallett and Joe Vardon presented readers with a litany of criticisms. Wrote Hallet and Vardon:

Republicans were lying in wait for Obama, with a coordinated preemptive media strike questioning his energy policy and stoking the growing anger over high gas prices, which they blamed on the president.

Hallet and Vardon went on to, essentially detail this “media strike:” George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, Ohio GOP spokesman Chris Maloney, Republican congressman Steve Stivers of Columbus, and Kirsten Kukowski, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman, took turns in the piece calling Obama’s energy policy a complete disaster and claiming that it has failed to relieve rising gas prices or create jobs. Readers also got some quotes from Obama saying that domestic oil and gas production is up and from a coalition of Ohio environmental groups saying that more drilling won’t help gas prices.

Nowhere did Hallett and Vardon cite any facts or figures to help their readers make sense of the various claims and counterclaims. Nowhere did they provide an evidence-based snapshot of trends in the US energy sector. And that’s bad news if, as they also reported in the piece, “Over the last six presidential elections since 1988, the Columbus media market has accounted for nearly 18 percent of the statewide vote, including 16 percent of the Democratic vote and 19 percent of the GOP vote.”

There’s nothing like a bunch of uninformed voters making critical decisions.

Unfortunately, the coverage wasn’t any better over at the Dayton Daily News, which took the same he-said, said-said approach to reporting. Reporter Jackie Borchardt even failed to correct a glaringly false claim by Stivers, the Republican congressman from Columbus, who claimed that expediting construction of the southern leg of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline—which Obama had directed federal agencies to do just hours before his visit to Ohio—would not connect Gulf Coast refineries to the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. But that’s simply not true. A recent article in The Christian Science Monitor by Mark Clayton, which included a helpful map, explained that “building just the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline would still mean transporting a lot of heavy crude from Alberta’s tar sands that reaches it via existing pipelines—a key point made in a 2010 study by the US Department of Energy.”

Thankfully, The Associated Press came riding in to rescue both the Dispatch and the Daily News—not to mention their readers. On the day of Obama’s speech, the Dispatch ran an excellent piece, “FACT CHECK: More U.S. drilling drop gas prices,” by AP reporters Seth Borenstein and Jack Gillum. The article, replete with an interactive graphic, which has received mentions from outlets as diverse as the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT and NBC News’s Meet the Press, exemplifies the type of data-driven reporting that CJR hopes to encourage with its recently published Reporter’s Toolbox on Gas Prices and Oil Production.

Wrote Borenstein and Gillum:

A statistical analysis of 36 years of monthly, inflation-adjusted gasoline prices and U.S. domestic oil production by The Associated Press shows no statistical correlation between how much oil comes out of U.S. wells and the price at the pump… Political rhetoric about the blame over gas prices and the power to change them—whether Republican claims now or Democrats’ charges four years ago—is not supported by cold, hard figures.

The Daily News on the day of Obama’s speech ran a different AP article, by Andrew Miga, which fact-checked an attack ad by Crossroads GPS—a right-leaning nonprofit advocacy group (doesn’t disclose donors) founded with the help of Karl Rove—airing nationwide on cable TV and on local stations in cities like Columbus. Citing Borenstein and Gillum’s statistical analysis, Miga refuted the ad’s claim that Obama’s “bad energy policies mean energy prices we can’t afford.”

Little of that fact-based reporting could be found in local Ohio media last week, but one exception was the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s well-done Q&A-style fact-check of energy-related claims and counterclaims emanating from the campaign trail. “Their rhetoric can be conflicting and confusing,” wrote the Plain Dealer’s Stephen Koff the day after Obama’s OSU speech. “So with the president in the Buckeye state, now is a good time to separate facts from myths.”

Koff did just that, addressing issues such as gas prices, the Keystone XL pipeline, drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico and offshore Alaska, and imports and exports of petroleum products. No other paper in Ohio seems to have taken as much care. The Toledo Blade had a decent story the day before Obama’s speech, which went into more detail than most. It mentioned statistics such as average oil production and permitting under the Bush and Obama administrations, but the stats came from Democrats and Republicans, not the reporter, Tom Troy’s, own sleuthing, so it’s hard for readers to tell whether or not to believe them. And a second Blade piece following the address offered more of the he-said-she-said fare. Like its counterparts in Columbus and Dayton, the paper relied on a syndicated article, this one from The Washington Post, to provide evidence-based context.

If energy policy continues to play a major role in the presidential contest, as it likely will, local coverage must improve. It is simply not enough to quote Democrats and Republicans making claims and counter-claims. There are facts that reporters can bring to bear to let their readers know who’s being honest and who’s not. The data aren’t always easy to dig up, especially on deadline, but references like the AP’s statistical analysis and CJR’s toolbox can help in a pinch. Voters need more from their local press.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.