Credit: Photo by Jay Skyler on Unsplash

A new report highlights the role of the media in climate delay, a practice that promotes ineffective solutions to the climate crisis and distracts from genuinely useful measures.

Produced by two climate investigative outlets, Drilled and DeSmog, it analyses seven "most trusted" news brands in the US and Europe: Bloomberg, The Economist, The Financial Times, The New York Times, Politico, Reuters and The Washington Post.

While all these outlets have dedicated, independent editorial teams who duly scrutinise the fossil fuel industry, they all also take Big Oil sponsorship money for advertorials, podcasts, newsletters and live events, allowing the polluters to promote narratives portraying them as environmentally friendly.

This practice blurs the lines between unbiased reporting and paid advertising. A 2018 study by Boston University found that less than one in 10 people can tell sponsored content from an article. This sows confusion and undermines the already shaky trust in news, while also delaying an urgent action against climate change.

"Influencing the influencers"

This is nothing new - the very concept of advertorial was invented in the 1970s by Herbert Schmertz, the then vice-president of public affairs at Mobil Oil, who ran weekly paid-for articles in The New York Times. The articles were not just advertising the latest motor products. They also often emphasised doubt in science when mentioning climate change.

Although the report only focuses on the seven "most trusted brands", this practice also seeped into the new kind of media. The US startup Semafor, for instance, partnered with Chevron to sponsor its climate newsletter launched in October 2022. Axios has also lined up with fossil fuel companies that have been sponsoring its newsletters since 2017.

"Influencing the influencers" - as Schmertz put it - does not come cheap. According to Yahoo! News, sponsoring POLITICO Playbook and Axios newsletter can cost more than $300,000 a week.

As for the seven media brands analysed in the report, the biggest spender by far was Saudi Aramco, which spent $13 million with The New York Times, $3 million with Reuters, $2.13 million with The Economist, and $1.55 million with Bloomberg from October 2020 to October 2023.

Readers for sale

The NYT’s Brand Studio (later T Brand Studio), which launched in 2014, has created ads for Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell. It also creates a podcast for BP called Energy Trilemma, which focuses on the Big Oil role in decarbonisation. However, it does not allow fossil fuel advertisers to sponsor its climate newsletters or organic social posts.

Its competitor The Washington Post worked with an even larger roster of fossil fuel advertisers, such as ExxonMobil that sponsored more than a hundred newsletters in 2022.

From all outlets analysed, Reuters is offering the most options to fossil fuel advertisers and is also "blurring the line the most between advertorial and editorial." Reuters journalists also "moderate panels at industry events, and produce newsletters and white papers that are written by events staff but incorporate Reuters editorial content,” the report reads.

"In the lead-up to COP28, advertising sales staff were also inviting advertisers to 'align your climate narrative with Reuters,' offering opportunities to secure 'exclusive interviews'; a place at high-level roundtables; coverage on the Reuters' website; exclusive dinner invites, and a Reuters presence in corporate pavilions at the Dubai expo centre hosting the negotiations," it continues.

Bloomberg, The Financial Times and The Economist seem less keen to amplify fossil fuel industry messages. But they still take millions of oil dollars for native content and live events.

On top of live event sponsorship, The Financial Times has given both Saudi Aramco and Equinor a dedicated page that features paid-for articles and videos, bringing in an estimated $7.6 million in revenue over three years.

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