Leading News Outlets Are Doing the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Greenwashing
news.movim.eu / TheIntercept · 6 days ago - 10:00 · 13 minutes
In a recent episode of the podcast “Powered By How,” award-winning journalist Nisha Pillai leads a discussion on the energy transition. Over the course of 25 minutes, the guests — a business psychologist, a renewable energy investor, and the head of an innovation lab — describe the challenges of scaling new technologies to combat the climate crisis. The casual listener could easily miss the first five seconds, when Pillai, a former BBC World News presenter whose voice instills instant confidence, announces that the podcast was produced by Reuters Plus in partnership with fossil fuel giant Saudi Aramco. Pillai never explains that Reuters Plus is the publication’s internal ad studio, nor does she remind listeners of the show’s sponsor when the head of the innovation lab, an Aramco executive, touts the benefits of unproven, industry-backed technologies.
Reuters is one of at least seven major news outlets that creates and publishes misleading promotional content for fossil fuel companies, according to a report released today. 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.
In collaboration with The Intercept and The Nation, Drilled and DeSmog analyzed hundreds of advertorials and events, as well as ad data from MediaRadar. Our analysis focused on the three years spanning October 2020 to October 2023, when the public ramped up calls for media, public relations, and advertising companies to cut their commercial ties with fossil fuel clients amid growing awareness that the industry’s deceptive messaging was slowing climate action.
All of the media companies reviewed — Bloomberg, The Economist, the Financial Times, the New York Times, Politico, Reuters, and the Washington Post — consistently top lists of “most trusted” news outlets. They also all have internal brand studios that create advertising content for major oil and gas companies, furnishing the industry with an air of legitimacy as it pushes misleading climate claims to trusting readers. In addition to producing podcasts, newsletters, and videos, some of these outlets allow fossil fuel companies to sponsor their events. Reuters goes even further, creating custom summits for the industry explicitly designed to remove the “ pain points ” holding back faster production of oil and gas. (Disclosure: Co-author Matthew Green was formerly a Reuters climate correspondent.)
With United Nations climate talks underway in the United Arab Emirates, oil and gas companies have been sponsoring even more advertorials and events with media partners than usual, primarily designed to portray the industry as a climate leader.
“It’s really outrageous that outlets like the New York Times or Bloomberg or Reuters would lend their imprimatur to content that is misleading at best and in some cases outright false,” said Naomi Oreskes, a climate disinformation expert and professor at Harvard University. “They’re manufacturing content that at best is completely one-sided, and at worst is disinformation, and pushing that to their readers.”Chevron is the exclusive sponsor of “Politico Energy,” a daily podcast bringing listeners “the latest news in energy and environmental politics and policy.”
Screenshot: Amy Westervelt
Spokespeople for Bloomberg, the Financial Times, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Washington Post told us that advertorial content is created by staff members who are separate from the newsroom, and their journalists are independent from their ad sales efforts (Politico and The Economist did not respond to requests for comment). But the independence of these outlets’ journalists is not in question; what’s important is whether readers understand the difference between reporting and advertising. And according to a growing body of peer-reviewed research, they do not.
“It tarnishes the reputation of that news outlet. So it’s baffling to me why newsrooms are continuing to pursue this.”
A 2016 Georgetown University study, for example, found that advertorials are confused for “real” content by about two-thirds of people . Another study, conducted in 2018 by Boston University researchers , found that only one in 10 people recognized native advertising as advertising rather than reporting.
Michelle Amazeen, the lead author on the Boston University study, found that those who did recognize sponsored content for what it was thought less of the outlet they were reading. “It tarnishes the reputation of that news outlet,” Amazeen said. “So it’s baffling to me why newsrooms are continuing to pursue this.”COP28 President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber speaks during a press conference at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Dec. 4, 2023.
Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images
Crafting “Climate Narratives”
This year’s 28 th annual U.N. climate negotiations — known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP28 — are currently being held in Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s top oil-producing countries. Presided over by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the head of the UAE’s state-owned oil company, Adnoc, it is the most industry-influenced COP yet.
Fossil fuel companies are seeking to preserve their business models by promoting carbon capture and storage, hydrogen power, and carbon offsets as viable climate solutions, even though the technologies are on track to do little more than extend the life of the fossil fuel industry. As COP28 president, Al Jaber backed these technologies in the leadup to the summit.
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 technologies’ benefits, it leaves readers confused.
In addition to the Reuters Plus podcast produced this year for Aramco, the New York Times’s T Brand Studio created “ the Energy Trilemma ,” a 2022 podcast for BP about how high-emitting industries are decarbonizing — but not by reducing the development or use of fossil fuels. Bloomberg Media Studios, meanwhile, created a video for Exxon Mobil touting hydrogen power and carbon capture and storage, or CCS. In the video, Exxon CEO Darren Woods says the company is “ready to deploy CCS to reduce the world’s emissions” but leaves out the fact that the company also plans to increase annual carbon dioxide emissions by as much as the output of the entire nation of Greece — news Bloomberg’s own climate reporters broke .
Reuters Events offered to help corporations hone their “climate narrative” at COP28 via opportunities to secure “exclusive interviews,” seats at high-level roundtables, coverage on the Reuters website, exclusive dinner invites, and a Reuters presence in corporate pavilions at the Dubai expo center where negotiations are held.
The media plays a fundamental role in shaping both policymakers’ and the public’s understanding of climate issues, according to Max Boykoff, who contributed research and analysis to the most recent climate mitigation report from the U.N.-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “People aren’t picking up the IPCC report or peer-reviewed research to understand climate change,” he said. “People are reading about it in the news. That’s what shapes their understanding.”Reuters Events marketing email sent to reporter Matthew Green on July 3, 2023.
Photo: Matthew Green
“Vast Sums of Money”
The fossil fuel industry’s attempts to extend its social license by buying friendly advertorials and other sponsored content date back to 1970, when Mobil Oil Vice President of Public Affairs Herbert Schmertz worked with the New York Times to create the first advertorial. The company proceeded to run these pieces, which Schmertz described as “political pamphlets,” in the Times every week for decades — a program that Mobil Oil extended to dozens of other outlets. A peer-reviewed 2017 study of Mobil and then Exxon Mobil’s New York Times advertorials found that 81 percent of the ones that mentioned climate change emphasized doubt in the science.
The advent of “brand studios” inside most major media outlets over the past decade has supercharged such content programs. Now many publications have staff dedicated to creating content for advertisers, and the outlets market their ability to tailor content to their readership. These offerings come at a higher cost than traditional ad buys, making them increasingly important to for-profit newsrooms facing a crisis in the traditional revenue models. And fossil fuel companies have been happy to pay.
“They wouldn’t be spending vast sums of money on these campaigns if they didn’t have a payoff, and it’s well documented that for decades, the fossil fuel industry has leveraged and weaponized and innovated the media technology of the day to its advantage,” said University of Miami researcher Geoffrey Supran, a co-author of the 2017 advertorial study with Oreskes. “It’s sometimes treated as a historical phenomenon, but in reality, we’re living today with the digital descendants of the editorial campaigns pioneered by the fossil fuel industry — the old strategy is very much alive and well.”
“It’s well documented that for decades, the fossil fuel industry has leveraged and weaponized and innovated the media technology of the day to its advantage.”
As their content marketing about the journey to net zero continues to get bigger and better, oil majors’ investments in fossil fuel development have only increased. A peer-reviewed study comparing oil majors’ advertising claims and actions, published in the journal Plos One in 2022, found that while the companies are talking more than ever about energy transition and decarbonization, they are not actually investing in either. “The companies are pledging a transition to clean energy and setting targets more than they are making concrete actions,” the study’s authors wrote.
Reporters at the publications we reviewed often cover this disconnect between advertising and action. Their employers, however, then sell the space next to those stories for industry-sponsored takes that research shows many readers take equally as seriously.Screen capture of WP Creative Group’s “Our Work” page, taken on Nov. 20, 2023.
Screenshot: Amy Westervelt
Taking a page from Schmertz’s book, the WP Creative Group — the Washington Post’s internal brand studio — describes on its website how it goes about “influencing the influencers.”
In 2022 alone, Exxon Mobil sponsored more than 100 editions of Washington Post newsletters. Throughout 2020 and 2021 , the Post also ran a series of online editorials for the American Petroleum Institute, the most powerful fossil fuel lobby in the U.S., including a multimedia piece that argued renewable energy is unreliable and fossil gas is a needed complement — talking points that the paper’s news reporters often debunk. During this time, the Washington Post editorial team published Pulitzer Prize-winning climate reporting and expanded its climate coverage .
Over the past three years, the Financial Times has also 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. In that same period, Politico has run native ads more than 50 times for the American Petroleum Institute; organized 37 email campaigns for Exxon Mobil; and sent dozens of newsletters sponsored by BP and Chevron, the latter of which also sponsors Politico’s annual Women Rule summit.
According to data from MediaRadar, 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 revenue figure does not include creative services fees paid to the Times’s internal brand studio. New York Times spokesperson Alexis Mortenson said that the studio creates custom content for fossil fuel advertisers in print, video, and digital, including podcasts, and promotes it to the New York Times audience via “dark social posts”: advertisements that cannot be found organically and do not appear on a brand’s timeline. Mortenson noted that the Times also allows fossil fuel companies to sponsor some newsletters, provided they are not climate related.
“I feel like it’s really important not to beat around the bush and to just recognize these activities for what they are, which is literally Big Oil and mainstream media collaborating in PR campaigns for the industry,” said Supran. “It’s nothing short of that.”
“Gross,” “Undermining,” and “Dangerous”
Of all the outlets we reviewed, only Reuters offers fossil fuel advertisers every possible avenue to reach its audience. Its event arm even produces custom events for the industry, despite counting “freedom from bias” as a core pillar of its “ trust principles ,” which were adopted to protect the publication’s independence during World War II.
Since Reuters News, a subsidiary of Canadian media conglomerate Thomson Reuters, acquired an events business in 2019, the distinction between the company’s newsroom and its commercial ventures has become increasingly blurred . Reuters’ in-house creative studio produces native print, audio, video, and newsletter content for multiple oil majors, including Shell , Saudi Aramco , and BP , while Reuters journalists routinely take part as moderators and interviewers and propose guest speakers for Reuters Events.
In a media kit for “content opportunities in the upstream industry,” Reuters Events staff offers to produce webinars, white papers, and live-event interviews for those hoping to get in front of its “unrivalled audience reach of decision makers in the oil & gas industry.” For its Hydrogen 2023 event, Reuters Events produced a companion white paper on the top 100 hydrogen innovators, which it then used to market the event in various other outlets. Topping the list of innovators were key event sponsors Chevron and Shell.
Reuters Events also stages fossil fuel industry trade shows aimed at maximizing production of oil and gas, and it creates digital events and webinars for vendors in the fossil fuel supply chain looking to connect with oil and gas companies. In June, Reuters Events convened hundreds of oil, gas, and tech executives in Houston for Reuters Events: Data Driven Oil & Gas USA 2023 , a conference held under the banner “Scaling Digital to Maximize Profit.”
“Time is money, which is why our agenda gets straight to key pain points holding back drilling and production maximization,” the conference website said.
In December 2022, Reuters ran an event sponsored by the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative , a lobby group that includes many of the world’s largest oil companies, to discuss the “major part” fossil fuel companies “play in ensuring a sustainable energy transition.” During the event, industry talking points were tweeted directly from the Reuters Events Twitter account.
Other news outlets, including the Financial Times, The Economist, and Politico, have held their own climate-focused events, sponsored by petrochemical majors like BP, Chevron, Eni, and Shell.
“Business-to-business publishers always had an events revenue stream, but consumer-facing news publications didn’t really get into the events business until digital advertising became commodified,” media analyst Ken Doctor said. Now events represent 20 to 30 percent of revenue for some publications. Doctor called them a “thought-leader exercise” for the advertisers. “There are only a few top media brands out there, and if you are associated with any of them, there is a lot of tangential brand building benefit to that.”
“How can we expect people to take our climate coverage seriously after everything these oil companies have done to hide the truth?”
Climate reporters at the outlets we reviewed, who requested anonymity to avoid professional repercussions, described the practice of selling advertorials and event sponsorships to fossil fuel companies as “gross,” “undermining,” and “dangerous.”
“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.
Another journalist at a major media organization said the outlet had undermined its credibility by striking commercial deals with oil and gas companies with a long history of casting doubt on climate science. “Where is our integrity? How can we expect people to take our climate coverage seriously after everything these oil companies have done to hide the truth?”
Additional reporting: Joey Grostern.
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