Big Media create ads helping greenwash the fossil fuel industry and hurting reporter credibility

If you’re unaware of Drilled, an award-winning website dedicated to focusing on climate accountability, you would do well to add it to your collection of substacks to read and support. It was founded six years ago by veteran climate reporter Amy Westervelt, who The New York Times should have hired instead of Bret Stephens. That’s the longtime climate science denier who claims to have had an epiphany after he visited Greenland last year. Scientists citing rigorous evidence showing Greenland’s ice sheet is melting just wasn’t as convincing to him as propagandists who rejected the very physics of the greenhouse effect.

As co-reported by Matthew Green and Joey Grostern at the 18-year-old DeSmog, a politics-of-the-climate-crisis website that also deserves to be on your list of must-reads—and co-published by The Nation and The Intercept—Drilled on Tuesday laid out their investigation into major, trusted news outlets regarding the in-house backshops producing “misleading promotional content for fossil fuel companies […] Known as advertorials or native advertising, the sponsored material is created to look like a publication’s authentic editorial work, lending a veneer of journalistic credibility to the fossil fuel industry’s key climate talking points.”

Here’s Westervelt and Green:

The enormous influence oil and gas executives are wielding at COP28 has thrown commercial partnerships between media outlets and the fossil fuel industry into sharper focus. Climate reporters at every outlet we analyzed have diligently covered the challenges that the industry’s so-called solutions face, but when that reporting is placed alongside corporate-sponsored content touting the technology’s benefits, it leaves readers confused. […]

News outlets’ in-house ad agencies haven’t just helped greenwash the fossil fuel industry’s preferred climate solutions in the leadup to COP28. Over the past three years, the Financial Times’ FT Commercial team has created dedicated web pages for various fossil majors, including Equinor and Aramco, along with native content and videos, all focused on promoting oil and gas as a key component of the energy transition. FT’s recent Energy Transition Summit platformed talking points from executives at BP, Chevron, Eni, and Essar. At The Economist’s 2020 Sustainability Week event, BP featured as a platinum sponsor, while Petronas and Chevron sponsored the magazine’s Future of Energy Week in 2022.

Politico is one of the most consistent publishing partners for the fossil fuel industry. Over the past three years, it has run native ads more than 50 times for the American Petroleum Institute, the most powerful fossil fuel lobby in the U.S.; organized 37 email campaigns for ExxonMobil; and sent dozens of newsletters sponsored by BP and Chevron, the latter of which also sponsors Politico’s annual “Women Rule” summit. Since 2017, Shell has sponsored every one of Politico’s Energy Visions events (and companion web series), which examines “the politics and issues driving the energy transition conversation.”

According to data from Media Radar, The New York Times took in more than $20 million in revenue from fossil fuel advertisers from October 2020 to October 2023 — twice what any other outlet earned from the industry. That number is due largely to the paper’s relationship with Saudi Aramco, which brought in $13 million in ad revenue during that three-year period, via a combination of print, mobile, and video ads, as well as sponsored newsletters.

The team interviewed climate reporters (who asked for anonymity to protect their jobs). They labeled the selling of advertorials and event sponsorships to fossil fuel companies as  “gross,” “undermining,” and “dangerous.” Worse still, “Not only does it undermine the climate journalism these outlets are producing, but it actually signals to readers that climate change is not a serious issue,” one climate reporter said.

There are, of course, other media signals to readers on that score. Like how often climate crisis stories make it to the front page or into staff or guest commentaries on the opinion pages. The same applies, even more so, to mainstream broadcast and cablecast outlets, where the climate crisis is lucky to get a couple or three minutes a week in primetime. And all too often, even these forays into the subject contain overly much “on the other hand” reporting. 

To be fair, there are excellent climate reporters doing good work at each of the sources Westervelt,  Green, and Grostern scrutinized. This is a big improvement over the not-so-long-ago days when practically every climate story put lying deniers on an equal footing with climatologists. But even now it’s always clear that climate coverage, even as watered down as it frequently is after a reporter turns in their copy, is not as valued by the media powers-that-be as other coverage. And while it’s true that advertising and editorial divisions are structurally independent at these media, it’s just a bit hard to accept that this tendency of editors to underplay the climate crisis is totally unconnected to fossil fuel propaganda, some of which those media themselves create. 


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