Media coverage of the oil and gas industry traditionally has been negative, but now reporters are trying to understand the reasons behind rising prices.Oil and gas might be the fuels that drive most of the US economy, but traditionally, the firms that provide these products have not been portrayed in a positive light by the nation's media. In recent years, however, the oil and gas industry has begun to benefit from what is if not more sympathetic, at least more knowledgeable coverage. "Reporters have come a long way in trying to understand a very complicated subject," says Jeff Eshelman, director of public and industry affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA). "They have been more balanced in their approach because they now understand the economics of pricing and the business concepts that are unique to this industry." Jim Craig, group director of policy and communications for the American Petroleum Institute (API), adds, "Even reporters who don't cover it regularly are doing a pretty good job of explaining the actions of OPEC and the commodity price." Finding an angle Oil and gas journalism can be divided into two categories - the hard story that involves complex issues, such as exploration, drilling, the environment, and public policy and the easy story, which focuses simply on the price of gasoline and heating oil. Most Americans, however, are only interested in the subject in one respect: the costs of filling up their cars and heating their homes. Accordingly, that is the topic that tends to generate most of the media interest. "On a story such as the gas price issue, you'll get reporters of all stripes," explains Craig. "It's an emotional issue, and it's a political issue. Oftentimes it starts out as a local story and quickly becomes a state story, and then all the national media get on top of it." Eshelman says his group has tried to pitch other oil- and gas-related stories, such as how petroleum companies benefit many local economies. "We have those statistics, but usually those aren't the type of stories that many reporters are interested in," he says. "Instead it's more of the industry versus consumer or the gas price story rather than a positive piece." This year it's likely that more government reporters will step into this story, especially given the many ex-oil and gas executives in the current White House. There also will be efforts to push a major energy bill through Congress. "A lot of reporters are looking at a political angle," says Elliott Negin, Washington communications director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Negin says there already have been several stories about political contributions from the oil and gas industry and whether that's impacted government policy. He expects that more such articles will be forthcoming. Moving toward supply stories To the frustration of many advocacy groups, the coverage of the issue has moved away from an environmental story, or even a conservation story, toward more of a discussion of how the US can ensure it has an adequate supply of oil and gas. Part of the reason for that is that industry groups, such as API, have become far more proactive in getting this message out to key media outlets. "We're setting up a team of spokespeople to go around the country and initiate conversations with reporters, and we're on TV a lot," says Craig. "So we don't just sit and wait for people to call us." In addition to providing access to in-house experts, many of these groups also recommend setting up interviews with executives from the oil and gas businesses. "We think it is really important to get the actual oil and natural gas producers in touch with the media to give a firsthand account of the challenges and barriers that are faced by companies in this industry," says Eshelman. That strategy also is used by the environmental groups on the other side, adds Negin, which means reporters can put a human face on both sides of this complex issue. Whether or not the situation in the Middle East and other politically charged oil-producing regions settles down and prices begin to drop, petroleum will likely continue on as a high-profile media issue for decades to come. "As long as people put gas in their cars, they'll pay attention to the price; the news will follow that," says Craig. "So I think we'll always be in the news." ----- Pitching... oil and gas
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