How TV news talks about Big Oil

Media Matters researcher Ted MacDonald returns to EXXONKNEWS with the details.

Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.

Who could forget May 26, Big Oil’s “bad day,” one of the only days in recent memory when Big Oil’s role in creating the climate crisis seemed to be all over social media and the news, not just my corner of climate Twitter. What a time to be alive.

Turns out the realities of news coverage that day were a little more complicated than they might have seemed. Last week, media watchdog organization Media Matters for America reported on cable news coverage of the oil industry’s monumental series of unfortunate events, delivering a few major takeaways: 

  • coverage was good in quality, featuring distinguished and respected experts in the climate community, but skimpy in quantity, with only 14 segments over seven major cable and broadcast news networks mostly over a two-day period; 

  • some segments provided useful context on Big Oil’s role in causing the climate crisis while lobbying and lying to delay climate action;

  • three major networks (CNN, MSNBC and Fox) ran ads from Chevron touting the oil giant’s “commitment to climate solutions” in between their coverage.

I spoke with the piece’s author, Ted MacDonald, to find out more about how cable news is covering climate and Big Oil in 2021. If you remember anything from over a year ago, we interviewed MacDonald last April on how COVID-19 was changing the media landscape on climate.

Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.

EK: Does cable news’s coverage of Big Oil’s bad day indicate a shift in how we talk about who is responsible for climate change?

TM: It’s definitely a step in the right direction. I don’t think news programs have a problem with saying climate change is real and it’s caused by the burning of fossil fuels, but connecting it to Big Oil and the outsized role that they play is rare. Just last year around election time there was a lot of conservative framing around Biden’s debate answer when he said he wanted to transition away from fossil fuels. Ninety-five percent of the cable news discussion of his comments ran with a pro-industry framing, and one that hyped up the negative implications for the fossil fuel industry. Climate change was still rarely part of that discussion. Then there’s the fact that Fox News covers climate issues more than CNN and MSNBC, and when they do it’s just a ton of misinformation or outright denial. So that’s still a problem.

EK: Is there something about the 24 hour news cycle that makes it hard to cover the climate crisis and Big Oil's role generally? Do we really have to wait for the stars to align with all of these stories happening on the same day to get the level of coverage we saw on May 26? 

TM: I think with the constant competition with social media, there’s an essential need for these 24-hour news shows to constantly do breaking news to stay relevant. I think cable news thinks climate doesn’t really fit the breaking news mold, so it’s typical that there needs to be a huge concentration of climate related activities for news organizations to seriously cover the issue. Obviously the facts are clear now that climate change is hitting us right now and a serious problem right now, but there’s still a tendency among major news networks not to want to be seen as too activist when it comes to covering climate. Just last week, there was an article by the Covering Climate Now folks who said some news outlets balked at participating in the Covering Climate Now projects because saying the words “climate emergency” sounded too much like activism. 

EK: You mentioned Chevron’s greenwashing ads coming up in outlets covering this issue, and there are many news outlets, especially ones that cover climate, that are heavily sponsored by Chevron, Exxon, and the American Petroleum Institute, for example. What role do you think all the Big Oil media sponsorship has on coverage? 

TM: As long as fossil fuel ads are still being run by media outlets, Big Oil is still playing a huge role in how climate issues are covered. Their ads serve as propaganda, and their goal is to get people to use their products, fossil fuels, the burning of which continues to worsen climate change. So you have good climate coverage during a segment, but a commercial break comes and a Chevron ad will play right after — and the ad is just a bunch of greenwashing.

I think there’s an argument to be made that fossil fuel ads should carry some sort of health warning like tobacco ads do. I’m hoping that we see more of that in the future. Even major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post do what they call branded content by fossil fuel companies, saying they’re somehow committed to climate action and sustainability while the reality shows the opposite. I follow Amy Westervelt on Drilled and Emily Atkin with HEATED, and they’ve done some really good research on these topics and I always like to encourage people to check out their work on this issue.

EK: There's been a lot of reporting on the relationship between cable news and Congress, and how the former has the power to set the agenda for the latter and drive public attention around specific issues. Sheldon Whitehouse said this week he’s now very anxious about climate legislation. Is it fair to assume that if cable news paid more attention to the climate crisis, there would be more pressure on Congress to act? What advice do you have for climate advocates trying to get media attention, especially as negotiations seem to be stalling? 

TM: Cable news influences the public perception of any issue and in general, has failed to communicate that we’re in a climate emergency that requires immediate action by our elected officials. We’ve done a little bit of research on coverage of the climate elements of the infrastructure plan, and it’s quite likely that Fox News has aired more segments than MSNBC or CNN. Fox has lied a ton about the Green New Deal, and they aired way more segments on that than CNN or MSNBC. So in addition to cable news not covering the issue enough, I think Fox and other right wing media still plays a big role in blunting public pressure for climate action by pushing fossil fuel industry talking points and climate denial to their audiences. With those forces at play, the onus of climate action will always have cover and public pressure to act on climate change will always be divided. 

I think that the best thing people can do to get better climate coverage is to force the conversation and make statements that grab attention. Youth movements like the Sunrise Movement and Fire Drill Fridays are doing a great job at getting the media to cover climate with mass protests, sit-ins, and school strikes. They’re asking the questions that demand to be answered.

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