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In October, Popular Information reported that Semafor — a high-profile new media company — launched a climate newsletter sponsored by Chevron.
Chevron is not only one of the world's largest producers of climate emissions but also is notorious for spreading climate disinformation. Chevron is currently being sued by 20 cities and states for misleading the public about how its products drive climate change. “Big Oil companies have engaged in a decades-long campaign of misinformation that has contributed to global warming, which has disproportionately impacted our residents," Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla said when the city filed a lawsuit against Chevron and other oil companies in 2020.
Asnoted in , Chevron's ads in Semafor were themselves misleading. The ad claims that Chevron is working on “renewable natural gas” developed from cow manure. While Chevron is working to create fuel from cow manure, it "is not renewable or natural – and it is certainly not a large-scale climate solution." More from the Conservation Law Foundation.
Also known as “biomethane,” this fuel is made from manure, industrial food waste, landfill gas, wood, and more. It’s a highly processed gas that still contains at least 90% methane – a greenhouse gas that significantly damages the climate more than carbon dioxide.
So, the term “renewable” natural gas is just a cover for what this fuel really is: methane, just like regular natural gas.
This is a problem, particularly for a news organization that says its core mission is to "rebuild trust."
Among those concerned with Chevron's sponsorship of the Semafor climate newsletter was its author, Bill Spindle. On Saturday, Spindle tweeted that he believes "it was not appropriate to have Chevron advertising on the same page as stories on climate coverage, particularly as the dominant advertiser." Chevron's sponsorship, according to Spindle, "raises the specter of improper influence, perceived and real."
Spindle claims that Semafor "acknowledged my concerns by removing the Chevron adverts from my emailed climate newsletter." But, he says, Semafor continued running Chevron ads on stories that Spindle wrote for the Semafor website. Spindle wrote that he departed Semafor last week, saying he told "Semafor leadership I saw no easy path forward as long as fossil fuel ads were in the climate stories and newsletter."
A Semafor spokesperson, however, told Popular Information that Spindle's departure was "due to issues that were unrelated to any advertising partnerships." The company also insisted it "did not remove [Chevron] advertising due to editorial requests and have a number of rotating sponsors of the climate newsletter." According to Semafor, the fact that the Chevron ads were removed from its climate newsletter after the sponsorship generated negative publicity was a coincidence.
Spindle told Popular Information that he had "no comment beyond my tweets."
A systemic problem in the media industry
Semafor's conduct is not unusual. Many major media outlets regularly run misleading advertising from fossil fuel companies. Over the last week, the New York Times ran this ad from Aramco, Saudi Arabia's state-owned oil company.
The website associated with the ad presents "blue hydrogen" as a way to meet the world's growing energy needs "whilst also addressing CO2 emissions and the overall impact on the environment." But the blue hydrogen promoted by Aramco is derived from methane. A 2021 study found "the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20% greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat and some 60% greater than burning diesel oil for heat." The study accounts for "carbon capture" techniques promoted by Aramco.
Ultimately, it's a similar message to the Chevron ads that appeared in Semafor. Chevron is also a member of the Clean Hydrogen Future Coalition, which promotes blue hydrogen. Both companies are attempting to convince the reader that a key way to address climate change is continuing to burn fossil fuels.
The Washington Post, the LA Times, Politico, Axios, PBS, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic all regularly run advertising from fossil fuel companies.
Often fossil fuel companies run "native" ads which are indistinguishable from editorial content for the casual reader. Like this ad from the American Petroleum Institute, the corporate lobbying organization from the fossil fuel industry, which claims a transition to renewable energy "may not be achievable."
Only a couple of major outlets, Vox and The Guardian, have a policy against accepting fossil fuel advertisements.
Stubbing out cigarette ads
The New York Times stopped accepting advertisements for cigarettes in 1999. "[W]e don't want to expose our readers to advertising that may be dangerous to their health," a spokesperson explained.
New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. explained that the decision was not a free speech issue:
The First Amendment gives the press the right to publish what it chooses to. It doesn't force the press to publish something, whether that's a news story or an advertisement. We continue to support the right of other publications to run any advertisement they feel is appropriate for their audience.
The Los Angeles Times followed suit, explaining that running ads for cigarettes while reporting on their dangers was hypocritical.
The Times has carried countless stories documenting that smoking causes cancer, heart disease and other health problems, that second-hand smoke is dangerous and that smoking is a leading cause of death among women. Then we ran a full-page, full-color ad featuring an attractive young woman smoking, with the words, “Isn’t it about time you started thinking about Number One?”
Readers nailed us. “What kind of hypocrites are you?” one reader e-mailed.
…“We have a special role as the voice of the community that requires us to exercise judgment with what we put in the paper,” [Los Angeles Times Publisher Kathryn] Downing said in explaining the ban. “And there is just no disputing the connection between smoking and illness and death.”
Today, virtually every news outlet has a policy against running ads for cigarettes. There is also no disputing the health and safety impacts of climate change, driven by fossil fuel emissions. But, for now, the misleading fossil fuel ads continue.