Climate change reporting for sale?

What sway do the big businesses changing our climate have over the journalists reporting on them?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
17 November 2015
climate pic 2.jpg

  Adam Ramsay, public domain

Can big polluters buy positive coverage in the British press, despite their disastrous impacts on our environment? We’re going to find out…

We know that the media has huge influence over our politics. We also know that most journalism is dependent, more than ever, on revenues from corporate advertising. If there were any doubts that the latter sometimes influences the former, then the explosive resignation of The Telegraph’s Chief Political Commentator Peter Oborne on openDemocracy earlier this year ended them.

Questions of advertiser influence of media coverage will always be important, but particularly so in the run up to the Paris climate change conference later this year. As global leaders meet to discuss an issue that will define the future of civilisation, journalists will play a vital role in holding them to account and keeping citizens informed about what’s happening.

Because of this, we can be sure that those who seek to undermine progress on climate change – like the vast fossil fuel companies who stand to lose from ambitious action - will seek to distort coverage; to feed lines to papers, to distract them from reporting uncomfortable truths, to cover only one side of the story. Because these companies pay for significant advertising space, and so fund the journalists supposedly holding them to account, there is a risk that they will succeed.

This is why openDemocracy is teaming up with The Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at Kings College (CSMCP) – who happen to be the key people behind the excellent Election Unspun project. For the next six months, we’re going to study the press coverage in the run up to the most important climate conference in half a decade. We’re going forensically study the lobbying and PR efforts by those seeking to block ambitious climate action, and pick out if and where these efforts are skewing media coverage. And to do this, we're going to need your help.

Using the CSMCP’s sophisticated software, hours pouring over the papers every day and traditional investigation, we're looking at the spin that fossil fuel companies are pushing and how much that spin gets repeated in the media. We’ll also look at the narratives NGOs are fighting back with, and how much they are repeated. We are examining where stories come from, who is treated as ‘experts’ on climate and whether those with a commercial interest in stopping action on climate change are having disproportionate influence over the debate.

Of course, the web of influence we're looking at will be complex. It's not just about advertising: what about the financial interests of proprietors? And their families and business partners? What power do vast companies wield over the journalists whose job it is to report on them every week? Does this lead to self-censorship? Is it hard to savage a company if you know you'll need a story from them next week?

Similarly, influence can be hard to tease out. Correlation doesn't always mean causation. If editors freely choose to parrot big businesses, then they have that right. How can we be sure when commercial considerations have influenced editorial opinion?

It won't always be clear. But we can find correlations and ask questions about them. We can highlight whose spin is being adopted and whether that happens to connect to any commercial links we dig up. And we will tell you what we find.

But we're going to need your help. If you're a journalist, or you know journalists, then have a think. Have you ever had a story on this subject spiked, and you suspect that undue influence of some kind had something to do with it? Have you had your copy edited to favour a particular ‘line’? Have you heard of others with similar experiences?

If you're a climate activist, have you ever suspected that a piece about your campaign was spun in the company's favour? And have you got any evidence that this had anything to do with links to the company you were targeting?

If you're a reader, look out for advertorials or sponsored supplements. If you come across strange puff pieces about companies or products and why they are good for the climate, then see if the same paper has adverts from that company anywhere else. And most importantly, let us know.

Most of the influence we expect to find will be subtle. We're looking at whether the press adopts the language of the 'green' movement or the 'brown' movement. We're doing analysis of narratives. We're looking out for features aimed at subtly twisting the debate. But it may not all be subtle.

It's worth remembering that last time, during the 2009 Copenhagen conference, the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia had a series of emails hacked. The 'brown' movement managed to whip up a storm around what they called 'climategate', putting a dent in climate debate for years. It would be surprising if they didn't have something similar planned this time round.

We all depend on the media. We read and watch and listen to it every day. And that means that we can all take part in investigating it, and holding it to account where it looks like it may be slipping from honest editorial opinion to reflections of commercial interest.

We can't afford to get climate change wrong. And we're never going to be able to get it right if our national conversation is twisted by short-term commercial interests. So please do help us out – if you know anything, or spot anything that worries you, drop me an email: [email protected] And keep checking back to see what we find out...


An advert about investing in crude oil, next to an article on the same subject, The Spectator, this week



We're digging through the media to see how climate change is reported over the Paris climate talks and beyond. Sign up to hear what we find out.

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