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As the Planet Boils, Corporate Media Still Carry Water for Fossil Fuel Giants

When it comes to climate reporting, corporate media outlets are still failing the public.

The Exxon Mobil Corporation logo is seen displayed on a smartphone with U.S. currency notes and coins in the background.

The 28th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of Parties summit (COP28), recently met in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). The president of the summit, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber — who also leads the UAE’s national oil company — drew criticism for rumors that he planned to use COP28 to make oil deals and for claiming there is “no science” behind urgent calls for a phaseout of fossil fuels, a statement he later walked back. CNN, CBS, The New York Times, and other establishment news outlets all ran stories about the uproar surrounding his mercenary defense of fossil fuels.

However, the blanket coverage of oil chief Al Jaber’s divisive role at COP28 was an outlier. Although commercial news media have recently given more coverage to the existential threats posed by anthropogenic climate change, more typically they pay only scant attention to the pernicious influence of the oil and gas industry. Corporate news outlets consistently underreport the devastating impact of fossil fuels on human health, and they tend to “greenwash” the economic and political forces that keep us dependent on carbon-intensive energy.

Energy Corporations’ Influence Suppresses Public Understanding of Their Depredating Impacts

The establishment press has failed to cover energy corporations’ contributions to the climate crisis, including how fossil fuel money skews university climate and energy research, and how fossil fuel investors have sued national governments to block climate regulations. Nevertheless, as documented by a 2021 International Monetary Fund (IMF) report, national governments provide trillions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, effectively “propping up an industry that is in decline,” as Mike Coffin, a senior analyst at the climate change think tank Carbon Tracker, told the Guardian in 2021. This story also received little attention from establishment news outlets.

Corporate news media have also failed to cover reports that some of the most widely touted approaches to climate mitigation, carbon offset programs, are mostly “worthless,” according to reports produced jointly by the Guardian, SourceMaterial and Die Zeit in January 2023.

Global brands such as Disney, Shell, Gucci, Salesforce, Netflix and United Airlines have promoted their environmental commitments, based on participation in carbon offset programs sponsored by Verra, the world’s leading offset certifier. But Verra sets the standards for offset programs and profits from them, which encourages the company to overstate its offset programs’ climate benefits.

One independent assessment, conducted by a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge, found that in 32 of the 40 forest-offset projects investigated, the claims concerning forest protection and emission reductions were overstated by an average of 400 percent.

Corporate news outfits have also failed to expose climate disinformation promoted by energy corporations. Electric utility companies have been knowingly spreading such disinformation for decades, Grist and The Atlantic reported in September 2022, citing a study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). The UCSB study examined nearly 200 utility industry documents spanning five decades — from 1968 to 2019 — which revealed that utilities including PG&E and Commonwealth Edison were well aware of the threats posed by climate change but adopted a strategy of “climate denial, doubt, and delay” to continue investing in polluting infrastructure for “several decades longer than scientists have advised is safe,” the study’s authors concluded.

In addition to inadequately covering disinformation and coverups about energy corporations’ crucial role in accelerating the climate crisis, corporate news media often fail to adequately inform the public about its immediate consequences. As our news watch organization Project Censored documents in its 2023 report of the year’s most important but underreported news stories, entire tribal towns in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest are being forced to relocate due to climate change, while two long-term epidemiological studies provide new evidence of health risks for people who live nearby oil and gas extraction sites, including high rates of childhood leukemia and a multitude of maternal health risks.

Omitting the Resistance

Finally, the establishment press has missed significant stories about the ways people are fighting back against fossil fuel-driven climate change.

For instance, in November 2022, 16 municipalities in Puerto Rico brought a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, Shell, and other fossil fuel companies, charging that the 2017 hurricane season, which did an estimated $294 billion in damage to the island, was worsened by global warming to which their products contributed, and that the companies colluded to deceive the public about this crucial fact. Other cities and states have attempted to sue oil and gas companies for climate change-related damages, but this is the first suit attempting to hold those companies accountable under United States racketeering laws. This story was initially reported by Reuters, The Guardian, Common Dreams and Grist but was ignored by the big commercial media. It took until July 19, 2023, for The New York Times to finally report the story.

The corporate media has also largely ignored efforts by Clean Creatives, a movement of workers within the most prominent advertising and PR agencies, to end their employers’ ties to fossil fuel companies. The movement now has support from some 2,000 individuals and 800 agencies who have pledged not to work for fossil fuel polluters. The Clean Creatives campaign has gotten some coverage in the business and ad industry trade press but so far has not been covered by any major general interest news outlets.

The News Media’s Corrupt Relationship With Energy Corporations

As the existence of the Clean Creatives campaign serves to underscore, corporate media remain dependent on revenues from advertising by energy companies and industries that are particularly reliant on fossil fuels, such as auto manufacturers and airlines. That economic dependence helps explain the lack of critical news reporting about fossil fuels and their catastrophic impacts.

Sociologist Robert Brulle and his co-researcher Christian Downie found that, between 2008 and 2018, fossil fuel companies and the trade associations they fund spent a whopping $2.2 billion on advertising and promotions. Many of these ads erroneously suggested that oil and gas corporations are leading the efforts to address climate change. For instance, since 2020, one fossil fuel front group, Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future, has spent in excess of $10 million on ads designed to convince the public that fracked gas is a solution to the climate crisis, a position rejected by most climate scientists.

A 2020 study by the environmental think tank Influence Map found that the oil and gas industry spent close to $10 million that year on some 25,000 Facebook ads that were viewed more than 431 million times in the U.S. Another study, conducted by Greenpeace and the New Weather Institute, found that automakers and airlines spent roughly $13 billion on advertising in 2019, which researchers estimated “could be responsible for 202 and 606 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions,” more than twice what is released by the entire nation of Netherlands annually.

But the corporate media’s cozy relationship with the fossil fuel industry goes beyond simply running their ads. Increasingly, respected news organizations such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters and Politico are partnering with fossil fuel companies to develop sponsored content — advertorials, podcasts and videos — that news outlets then host on their sites immediately adjacent to legitimate news. Reuters’s marketing staff even created a custom conference for “oil and gas digital innovators.”

As greenhouse emissions rise and global temperatures inch closer to critical levels, we need media that tell the truth about the corporate behemoths responsible for the climate crisis, not media that collaborate openly with them. The full story includes not only the health and environmental damage wrought by energy corporations and their efforts to obscure those realities but also grassroots collective resistance to its agenda. For this reason, we need to call out these failures by the establishment news media — and support independent and alternative news outlets that make hard-hitting reporting on climate issues and climate activism a priority.

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