Is Banning Fossil Fuel Ads Really the Fix Activists Think It Is?

Media companies need to begin asking themselves what an ethical advertising policy looks like in the era of climate crisis.

by | Jan 29, 2020

I’ve been pointing out for a while that The New York Times and Washington Post, two mainstream news outlets doing some of the best climate reporting in the United States on the newsroom side of their companies, have been creating advertising for fossil fuel firms on the in-house “branded content” ad agency side. I’ve criticized those ads as a bridge too far for newspapers doing critical reporting on climate change, but not out of concern that they affect reporters. My worry is that campaigns like these influence and mislead news audiences to believe that oil companies are spending a lot on research and development of climate solutions (which they are not, when compared to their continuing oil and gas investments), and that these solutions are further along and more of a complete climate fix than they are, and ever may be.

If Exxon did not believe that its algae-based biofuel ads improved its image, then why would it be paying T Brand Studio, The Times’ “brand marketing unit” that sells itself in part on its ability to “influence the influential,” to create them?

Whenever I talk about this, I inevitably get asked this question: Do you think outlets should just stop taking fossil fuel ads? Well, now another mainstream news outlet, The Guardian, has done just that, announcing that it will no longer accept fossil fuel advertising. #ClimateTwitter is celebrating, and Greta Thunberg herself has congratulated the paper for its decision. So why am I not happier?

I think it’s because I’ve started to realize that there is a bigger conversation to be had, one the media in general has been putting off for a long time: What does an ethical advertising policy look like in the climate change era? In a world where climate disinformation is rampant — and Exxon’s feel-good algae campaign is just a few yards away from toeing that line — what’s the role of a mainstream news outlet in educating readers about what’s behind the fossil fuel industry’s advertising campaigns?

The Guardian has taken a bold first step. It’s commendable, especially compared to what I’ve heard from NPR, The Washington Post, and The New York Times about their responsibility for running misleading fossil fuel ads. Their responses boil down to, “We’re not doing anything illegal,” and, “We have a firewall between advertising and editorial.” Both are true, but this is hardly a gold standard on ethics. Of course, now The Guardian will need to grapple with where its new policy ends. Will it also ban automobile company ads? Bottled water? Airlines? Amazon?

Maybe there’s an opportunity here to continue communicating climate realities to readers: Ban fossil fuel ads from running with climate stories. Include a disclaimer on them where they do appear, explaining that burning fossil fuels is dangerous to the climate and public health. Debunk overstatements of what the industry is doing about its impact, and about climate change in general.

Fossil fuel companies would probably pull their ads willingly after a month of this. But in the meantime, news outlets could help their audiences think critically about these firms and their claims.

For decades, alongside the growing body of science proving the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change, Big Oil financed doubt and confusion campaigns, influencing news media to wrap the industry in a blanket of credibility. Today, those campaigns have largely evolved into more subtle efforts at image-building that still mislead, while the industry retains its enormous social license. It’s doubtful that license will be revoked simply because we don’t see or hear their ads anymore. Media may need to go beyond simply refusing to distribute industry ads to actively informing audiences of when they’re being spun.

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.