Alex Constantine - May 21, 2013
Top News Outlets Failed to Cite Think Tank Funding in Two-Thirds of Climate and Energy Stories in 2011 and 2012
WASHINGTON (May 13, 2013)—The U.S. news media routinely fail to inform the public about the fossil fuel industry funders behind climate change contrarian think tanks, according to an investigation by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
“There are a lot of reasons why Congress has yet to take significant steps to curb U.S. carbon emissions, and the news media are at least partly to blame,” said Elliott Negin, UCS’s director of news and commentary and the author of the series. “Too often they’ve provided a platform for fossil fuel industry-funded groups to make misleading claims about global warming and renewables and allowed them to pass themselves off as independent, disinterested parties.”
Negin surveyed climate and energy stories published or aired in 2011 and 2012 by eight top news organizations to see if they reported funding sources for eight prominent policy groups that dispute climate science. The climate contrarians, which he dubbed the “Oil Eight,” are the American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Cato Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heartland Institute, Heritage Foundation, Institute for Energy Research (and its political arm, American Energy Alliance), and Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
During the last decade, each of the Oil Eight was funded by at least one of the following benefactors: Exxon Mobil; General Motors; the American Petroleum Institute (the U.S. oil and gas industry’s trade association); and three family foundations controlled by Charles G. and David H. Koch, owners of Koch Industries, a conglomerate with oil, gas and coal holdings. (For more information about the Oil Eight’s fossil fuel industry funding, see this list.)
Negin reviewed more than 1,000 stories, editorials, opinion columns and interviews published or aired by the Associated Press, NPR, the political trade journal Politico, and six leading newspapers: the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. After narrowing his sample to 376 relevant pieces, he found that these news outlets failed to provide information about the Oil Eight’s fossil fuel industry funding in two-thirds of the stories over the two-year period. (For more on the survey findings, see this table.)
“When I was in school, 32 percent was an F,” said Negin, a former NPR editor and former managing editor at American Journalism Review. “Journalists are duty-bound to report whose interests these think tanks represent.”
Over the years, Negin explained, journalists have consistently relied on these fossil fuel industry-funded groups to provide the “other side” in climate and energy stories when, in fact, there is no other side—at least not on the science or the fact that we have to wean ourselves off fossil fuels to avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change. All too often, however, the news media have presented these two sides as equivalent, despite the fact that one rests its argument on peer-reviewed climate science while the other promotes the distortions of industry-funded contrarians, most of whom are not climate scientists—or even scientists at all.
The eight news organizations did the best job identifying the fact that the Koch brothers underwrite Americans for Prosperity, citing the Kochs as the group’s funders 69 percent of the time. They were not nearly as attentive with the other groups, however. They disclosed the funders behind the Institute for Energy Research and its political arm, American Energy Alliance, in 43 percent of the stories that mentioned them in 2011 and 2012, and then their attention faded dramatically. The news outlets mentioned the Heartland Institute’s benefactors only 20 percent of the time, the Cato Institute’s funders only 10 percent of the time, and the supporters of the remaining four groups—the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Manhattan Institute, Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute—less than 10 percent of the time. (For more information about how often the Oil Eight were cited and how often those stories mentioned their funders, see this chart.)
Politico ran the most climate and energy stories citing the Oil Eight during the two-year period—86—and named their funders 44 percent of the time, tying it with the Los Angeles Times for the best record. The Los Angeles Times—which the Koch brothers would like to buy—ran 25 stories citing one or more of the Oil Eight, mentioning funders in 11 of them. (For more information about how often the news organizations named funders when citing one or more of the Oil Eight, see this chart.)
The news organizations that did the worst job identifying fossil fuel industry funders were the two newspapers with the biggest circulations in the country: USA Today, which cited them in only 18 percent of its 28 stories and op-eds; and the Wall Street Journal, which named them in only 11 percent of its 46 stories, columns and op-eds.
Over the course of the six-part series—which will run today, May 13; Wednesday, May 15; Friday, May 17; Monday, May 20; Wednesday, May 22; and Friday, May 24—Negin will provide specific examples of how the eight news outlets failed to adequately inform their readers or listeners, and offer recommendations for how journalists can better serve the public interest.
For more information, including all tables and charts, visit the UCS web site.