June 23, 2024


Major news and tech media that have run fossil-fuel ads were largely staying quiet after the UN’s secretary general called for governments and companies to place bans on advertisements for coal, oil and gas.

“Stop taking fossil-fuel advertising,” António Guterres implored in a major speech on Wednesday after railing against energy companies for “distorting the truth, deceiving the public, and sowing doubt” about the climate crisis.

“Many in the fossil-fuel industry have shamelessly greenwashed, even as they have sought to delay climate action with lobbying, legal threats and massive ad campaigns,” Guterres said.

The Guardian contacted 11 major news organizations and tech firms who run fossil-fuel ads in some form, seeking comment on Guterres’s call for media to stop running the ads. Most did not respond to requests, with only two choosing to comment.

Guterres’s admonishment came amid fierce debate in recent years about fossil-fuel dollars in media circles. Some publications, including the Guardian in 2020, Vox in 2021 and France’s Le Monde last year, have banned oil and gas advertisements.

“This also includes not partnering with lobbyist groups whose purpose is to support fossil-fuel companies,” a Vox Media spokesperson said in a statement.

But many major media outlets, including the Washington Post, Reuters, Politico and Axios, and TV networks such as MSNBC and CNN, still feature fossil-fuel ads.

News organizations have in recent years come under fire for the practice, and especially for placing oil ads alongside coverage of the climate crisis. In December 2022, one climate journalist parted ways with the publication Semafor after the media outlet ran oil-company ads on his climate newsletter and articles (the outlet said at the time its ad policy followed industry standards and was robust).

Amid growing scrutiny of their relationships with fossil-fuel companies, some outlets have taken steps to mitigate criticism. National Public Radio’s public editor this year said oil sponsorship should be “handled carefully” after the network faced pushback for accepting funding from the fossil-fuel giant ExxonMobil. The New York Times in 2021 pledged to ban oil and gas companies from sponsoring its climate newsletter and events, and its podcast The Daily. (The climate publication Heated has noted that the Times had since run ads from oil companies on the podcast, but the New York Times says it prevents them from purchasing “all of the ad spots on individual episodes”.)

A spokesperson for Politico, the sole publication that responded to the Guardian’s request for comment, said the outlet had “hosted a diverse array of advertisements”, including from fossil-fuel companies, renewable-energy producers and climate-advocacy groups. The outlet also works to boost transparency, the spokesperson said: “Advertisers are prominently identified, and a clear distinction between news and ads, including sponsored content, is maintained across Politico’s platforms.”

US news media have been in crisis in recent years, with traffic losses due in part to the decline in referrals from search engines, and shrinking ad revenues.

Some outlets have stressed there is a strict division between advertising and editorial departments. The Politico spokesperson, for instance, said her outlet’s firewall was “sacrosanct”, adding that “no advertiser or advertisement sways editorial decisions or news judgment”.

But Naomi Oreskes, a climate disinformation expert and professor at Harvard University, said media outlets have a “core obligation to provide readers with good information”.

“No one is saying this is easy,” she said. “But we need to face the hard stuff.”

A firetruck drives along Highway 96 as the McKinney fire burns in Klamath national forest in California on 30 July 2022. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP

Even if they have no impact on a publication’s journalism, she said, fossil-fuel ads can expose readers to misleading claims.

Geoffrey Supran, an associate professor and scholar of fossil-fuel industry messaging at the University of Miami, said “there is also potentially a concern about the outlet’s editorial staff being exposed to the ads’ claims”. In a 1980s internal public relations assessment, oil giant Mobil indicated that it believed its advertorials in the New York Times had shifted the outlet’s position in its favor, he said.

Over the past 10 years, scholars and journalists have amassed a wide body of evidence showing that the fossil-fuel industry knew about the climate dangers of coal, oil and gas, yet hid that information from the public and used advertising to sow climate doubt.

“The fossil-fuel industry’s advertising campaigns are state-of-the-art propaganda developed in partnership with public relations experts, executed via media outlets, and based on almost a century of collaborative experience,” said Supran.

An April congressional investigation, based on a tranche of documents subpoenaed from oil companies, called the advertisements “deceptive” and said they had led a “campaign” of disinformation, similar to one helmed by the tobacco industry. The documents, the lawmakers said, showed oil companies place sponsored content in the news media as a deliberate strategy to influence public opinion and policy.

Representatives from the Washington Post, the New York Times, Reuters, Axios, Bloomberg, National Public Radio, CNN and MSNBC did not respond to requests for comment before time of publication.

The main US lobby group for the fossil-fuel industry defended itself. Reached for comment about Guterres’s speech, Megan Bloomgren, senior vice-president of communications at the American Petroleum Institute, said: “Our industry is focused on continuing to produce affordable, reliable energy while tackling the climate challenge, and any allegations to the contrary are false.”

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Many outlets are not only accepting fossil-fuel advertisements, but also have arms that are producing them. Reuters, the New York Times, Bloomberg, Politico and the Washington Post all count oil majors as clients of their in-house production studios, events businesses and other branded content, a recent investigation from Drilled and the Nation found.

Fossil-fuel firms are also major advertisers on big technology platforms such as Google, Facebook and Instagram. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, declined to comment on Guterres’s speech.

In 2022, Google said it would prohibit ads promoting climate-change denial and promised to block or remove ads that violated that rule.

“In creating our climate change denial policy and its parameters, we’ve consulted authoritative sources on the topic of climate science, including experts who have contributed to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports,” a Google spokesperson said in an email, adding that the policy “generally speaking … does not block specific types of advertisers on our platform”.

Few governments have imposed bans on fossil-fuel advertisements. In 2022, France banned ads for some fossil-fuel products, and similar laws are being discussed in Canada and Ireland. In 2020, Amsterdam became the first city to pass a ban on fossil-fuel ads; the Scottish capital city of Edinburgh and Sheffield in England are set to do the same.

This year, the UK also banned advertisers from using some potentially misleading environmental terminology as part of a crackdown on misleading environmental claims.

The fossil-fuel industry’s decades of “deceptive advertisements”, said Oreskes of Harvard University, “have served to confuse the public about the role of fossil fuels in driving climate change, and the role of the fossil-fuel industry in driving fossil-fuel use”, while undermining public support for the transition away from fossil fuels.

She noted that the US banned television and radio ads for cigarettes in 1971, and that 60 other countries have completely banned advertisements for tobacco. “It is well past time that we imposed similar restrictions on fossil-fuel ads,” she said.

Guterres on Wednesday also called on advertising and PR agencies to cut ties with coal, oil and gas companies. Public relations giants such as Weber Shandwick and BCW have held numerous contracts with oil and gas companies, and Edelman has pledged to eschew projects promoting climate denial but has continually worked with oil companies.

But 1,100 advertising, PR and creative companies have taken a pledge organized by Clean Creatives.

“Today is a turning point in the advertising and PR industry’s relationship with climate change and fossil fuels,” said Duncan Meisel, the executive director of Clean Creatives, a non-profit pushing creative agencies to cut ties with fossil-fuel firms. “There is no longer any cover for agencies to say that they are doing the right thing when working with polluters.”

Supran said banning or boycotting fossil-fuel advertising would “hit oil companies where it hurts” by “removing one of the key cogs in the oil industry’s climate denial and delay machine”.

“If big oil loses its ability to lobby the public, its political power to delay climate action will be severely diminished,” he said. “It would cut off one of the oil industry’s lifelines for defending the status quo.”



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