[Your misinformation here!]

Chiara Milford
4 min readNov 23, 2020

How corporate ads are undermining journalism

Two weeks ago, a full page of misinformation appeared in the Washington Post.

Source: Washington Post and HEATED

In an advertorial taken out by Lawrence Gelman, readers were told that, “Man’s combustion of fossil fuels has no effect on temperature or climate” among other false claims that fly in the face of science. The ad reportedly cost Gelman $25,000.

This is indicative of a much wider problem with the news industry. The New York Times, MSNBC, CNN, Axios, the Economist, and NPR, are among many of the media outlets who continue to run adverts from fossil fuel companies. Ads that say anything from “oil runs cleaner,” to “Chevron saves butterflies.”

You can’t say that you’re an ethical news outlet if you’re taking money from companies who are spreading misinformation and profiting from planetary collapse. It goes against the principle of minimising harm and undermines trust in the craft.

Those very same outlets publish some of the best climate journalism around. They tell us vociferously that there is a firewall between the newsroom and advertising. But sandwiching ads between real reporting makes them look like they’re part of the same journalistic machine. An outlet’s choice of ads reflects their values.

Ads don’t go through the same rigorous process as editorial. If they did, no one would make any money from putting ads in media. By its very nature, marketing does not disseminate the truth and wouldn’t pass any rudimentary fact-check.

Most readers can tell the difference between a clearly labelled ad and a news story. The page in the Washington Post visibly told us who paid for it to be there. But having such fabrications appear next to actual news could easily be misinterpreted for endorsement.

That’s the entire reason brands choose to advertise in heritage media outlets. They use the clout and influence of publications like the Washington Post to further an agenda that has little to do with journalistic values.

It’s one thing to ignore the ethical principle of minimising harm. It’s another to put journalistic integrity up for sale.

Source: CIC

The fossil fuel industry has spent billions ($2 billion, in fact) on preventing climate regulation policies and even more ($3.6 billion) on advertising to clean up their image. It’s an interest group, just as much as any political campaign.

It benefits from spreading confusion. This isn’t just marketing, it’s outright deception. And it should have no place in the pages of a reliable news source.

Despite the green-washed image we get from adverts, oil companies spend a little over 1% of their expenditure on renewable projects. When a company’s business model is a threat to humanity’s life support system, it shouldn’t be allowed to advertise to us.

You can argue that without this funding, struggling news outlets wouldn’t be able to produce the kind of quality journalism that we rely on. But when that money comes from such disreputable sources and is only a marginal part of revenue, it doesn’t seem worth it.

Climate journalist, Emily Atkin, asks, “If newspapers allow themselves to profit from spreading falsehoods, can the public trust them to be arbiters of truth?”

Only a handful of news outlets are still managing to turn a profit, mainly thanks to advertising revenue. But a growing handful is rejecting that business model entirely.

The Tyee and the Narwhal take no money from advertising and continue to produce award-winning journalism funded entirely by their readers and grants. Fellow progressive news site, Grist, is careful with who it lets advertise on its platform.

Earlier this year, the Guardian announced that it would ban fossil fuel companies from advertising in any of its publications. This dented its revenue by £500,000 and cemented the Guardian’s reputation as a leader in climate reporting and ethical journalism.

These outlets share more than just their commitment to ethical reporting: none of them turn a profit.

If making shareholders money is what drives certain journalistic outlets, how can we believe that it is operating for the public good? The profit motive excludes the possibility of truly unbiased journalism.

If we take away that motivation, maybe we’d be left with a more reliable press.

It only costs $25,000 to buy a page in one of the most read newspapers in America and fill it with unbridled misinformation.

How much is the truth worth?