The good, the bad, and the ugly of TV news coverage of Big Oil’s consequential day
While the quality of segments was excellent, the quantity was lacking, and Chevron ran a plethora of misleading ads
May 26 was a historic day in the energy industry, with a win for climate activists (and our planet) and a “very bad day” for Big Oil, and though the media coverage of the news excelled in quality, it lacked quantity, with broadcast and cable news channels airing just 14 segments in total. Additionally, cable news channels allowed oil giant Chevron to run dozens of ads on their airwaves greenwashing its awful climate record.
A Dutch court ruled on May 26 that Shell must cut its emissions by 45% by 2030, relative to 2019 levels. The lawsuit, filed in 2019, marked “a first in which environmentalists have turned to the courts to try to force a major energy firm to change strategy.” There were also huge developments at ExxonMobil and Chevron shareholder meetings: Two activist investors won seats on Exxon’s board with the goal of steering the oil giant to a cleaner energy future, while a majority of Chevron shareholders voted in favor of a resolution to curtail Chevron’s emissions.
Numerous climate and energy commentators hailed the groundbreaking Big Oil news. Bill McKibben called it an “utterly crushing day for Big Oil.” Clark Williams-Derry of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis called it “the start of a new era for Big Oil,” while the energy editor of the Financial Times called it a “nightmare day for Big Oil.” Climate activist Al Gore also jumped in, stating, “Today, fossil fuel companies got a big wake up call! The time to change is now. Keep up the pressure. It's working!”
Media Matters analyzed Big Oil news segments across the seven major TV news networks -- ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, NBC, and PBS -- from May 26 through June 1 and found that the quality of coverage regarding Big Oil’s events was excellent, and it should be a model for climate and energy news coverage going forward. What was not good, however, was that the quantity of coverage was lacking -- with 14 segments in total, 8 of which aired on MSNBC -- and Chevron greenwashing ads on cable news networks remained a huge problem throughout the week.
The Good: Many Big Oil segments were in-depth and contextualized the news within a climate lens
Guests invited to discuss the Big Oil news were knowledgeable and experienced in climate politics
Not every Big Oil news segment featured a guest, but those that did were highly knowledgeable about the confluence of climate issues and the history of Big Oil.
Leah Stokes, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was featured in two segments -- one on the May 27 edition of PBS NewsHour, and the other on the May 28 edition of MSNBC's MTP Daily. Stokes, who focuses on climate and environmental issues, is also a fierce advocate for more and better media coverage of climate change.
The three other guests brought on to discuss the Big Oil news were all on MSNBC: Bill McKibben, who appeared on the May 26 edition of The Rachel Maddow Show; Robinson Meyer, who appeared on the May 28 edition of MTP Daily; and Donald Pols, who appeared on the May 28 edition of Ayman Mohyeldin Reports. McKibben is one of the leading figures in the American environmentalist movement. Meyer writes the climate newsletter The Weekly Planet for The Atlantic, while Pols is the director of the Dutch environmental group Milieudefensie and has previously helped file lawsuits against Shell.
Several segments discussed the significant role oil companies have played in heating our planet
Big Oil has played a central role in driving climate change by burning fossil fuels, deliberately spreading climate denial, blocking climate action, and aggressively lobbying Congress. In segments related to the May 26 Big Oil news, many news programs (particularly on MSNBC) did a good job of conveying these facts.
On the May 26 edition of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, host Rachel Maddow began her Big Oil news coverage with a chyron noting that just 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of global emissions. Later in the episode, she referred to Exxon as “the flagship American oil and gas giant … who has led the way so long in funding and promoting climate denial and conspiracy theories.”
In a segment on the May 28 edition of MSNBC’s MTP Daily about the Big Oil news and its implications, The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer referenced the long history of oil companies knowing that their product contributed to global warming. He stated, “There's been a lot of documentation that indicates … that the oil companies, like the tobacco companies, were aware of climate change as they were selling their product, and they were not disclosing it to customers.” Later that afternoon on MSNBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin Reports, guest Donald Pols spoke about the impacts of the Shell court ruling and Shell’s history of predatory delay when it comes to climate change: “25 companies, amongst them Shell, represent more than half of the global greenhouse gas emissions, and they are not regulated. They are not part of the Paris Climate Accord. They are not part of any national climate regulation. And that of course is the main reason why we as a global community did not manage to address climate change.”
And at the end of his segment on the Big Oil news on the May 29 edition of MSNBC’s Velshi, host Ali Velshi stated, “After this week, it’s clear that the status quo for big oil companies will no longer be accepted. The science is clear. The verdict is in. Climate change is real. Fossil fuels are a big part of the problem.”
Several segments mentioned the enormous significance of the May 26 news
The May 26 Big Oil news was really a watershed moment for the climate and energy industry as a whole, and segments drove this point home to the viewers.
On the May 26 edition of The Rachel Maddow Show, environmentalist and author Bill McKibben stated, “10 years ago, Exxon was the biggest company on planet Earth. … Exxon is still powerful. But it's now on the ropes in all kinds of ways. And remember, it's not just that they have to cut emissions, it's that as of tomorrow, they're that much less powerful on Capitol Hill.” On the May 27 edition of PBS NewsHour, anchor Judy Woodruff began the Big Oil segment by stating, “It was a day like no other recently for several of the world's biggest oil and gas companies.” PBS correspondent William Brangham called it “a stunning day.”
On May 27, CNN’s Early Start called the Dutch court ruling “highly significant.” Later that evening, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes spoke about the ruling on his show, stating, “There are carrots out there, but we've got a real lack of sticks. And now an EU court has busted out a stick.” Later that night on MSNBC’s The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, senior national correspondent Brian Sullivan stated “The wakeup call loud and clear for Big Oil from both shareholders and the courts: Change your business model to better combat climate change.”
The Bad: The number of segments regarding such important news was lacking, with several major news outlets barely covering the issue or not covering it at all
News shows on three major broadcast networks (CBS, NBC, and PBS) and three major cable networks (CNN, Fox, and MSNBC) aired just 14 segments in total on the Big Oil news between May 26 and June 1. More than half -- or eight segments -- aired on MSNBC and nearly a quarter -- or three segments -- appeared on just one program, The Rachel Maddow Show.
ABC news programs did not air a single segment on the Big Oil news. CNN aired only two segments on the Big Oil news, during both the 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. hours of its programming on May 27. Four other networks aired one segment each on the Big Oil news -- Fox News’ Your World with Neil Cavuto on May 26, PBS NewsHour on May 27, NBC’s NBC Nightly News on May 27, and CBS’ CBS This Morning on May 28.
In an era of worsening climate change and more calls for unified action to fight it, it is incredibly disappointing that a 24-hour news channel like CNN would devote such little time to this monumental news and broadcast outlet ABC would fail to cover the news at all.
It is also notable that Fox was conspicuously silent about the Big Oil news, airing just one brief segment on the developments. Fox, of course, never misses an opportunity to promote fossil fuels and demonize climate action.
There was only one mention of a recent UN climate report during this timeframe
On May 27, a report released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) found that there is a 44% chance of the Earth temporarily hitting 1.5 degrees Celsius warming at some point in the next five years. WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas called this “yet another wakeup call that the world needs to fast-track commitments to slash greenhouse gas emissions and achieve carbon neutrality.”
Although the Big Oil news and the WMO report are not directly related, their link to each other is undeniable. TV networks had the opportunity to cover the WMO report, either separately or alongside the Big Oil news to highlight the increasing importance of climate action. Unfortunately, there was only one segment -- during the May 28 edition of CBS This Morning -- that linked these two stories together and the only one to cover the WMO report at all. CBS News meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli did an excellent job of explaining the WMO report, saying, “Humanity isn’t doing very well in managing our global greenhouse emissions.”
The Ugly: Tons of Chevron greenwashing ads ran on cable news networks throughout this time period
Chevron ran commercials highlighting their supposed commitment to fighting complete change at least 70 times across CNN, Fox, and MSNBC during all hours from May 26 to June 1. In fact, at least 50 of these came on CNN, while the network aired only two segments that even mentioned Chevron’s consequential day on May 26.
As the nonprofit climate advocacy group End Climate Silence first pointed out, many of these Chevron ads ran during prime-time programs on CNN, including The Lead with Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper 360, and neither of these two programs ran any segments on the May 26 Big Oil news. End Climate Silence further explained why the Chevron ads were misleading, noting, “Fossil fuel advertising is as fraudulent as tobacco PR—and as deadly.”
Chevron, and Big Oil in general, is claiming that it is committed to fighting climate change and that it can be a key part of the transition to a low carbon economy. Despite these claims, Chevron is doubling down on its commitment to fossil fuels; furthermore, despite its talk of wanting to increase its renewable energy usage and invest in carbon capture solutions, only 1% of the company’s capital and exploration budget is actually devoted to these issues.
Chevron’s recent ads are really just another form of greenwashing, which the company has a long record of. (It’s telling, also, that Chevron is currently facing a greenwashing lawsuit).
Until network news stations stop running fossil fuel ads, they are still a platform for industry greenwashing -- made worse by the fact that TV news rarely connects Big Oil to the climate crisis.
We must see more quality and quantity of climate coverage on major TV news stations
The quality of segments regarding the Big Oil news is unique because rarely is the fossil fuel industry taken to task on TV news programs for its contributions to environmental degradation and climate change and subsequent efforts to delay climate action. For example, while TV news shows aggressively covered the recent Colonial Pipeline hack and its implications for national security, they were completely silent on how the pipeline is under investigation for a massive spill that is affecting nearby communities along the pipeline. Additionally, the leadup to the 2020 presidential election saw cable news discuss the issue of fracking and a transition to fossil fuels with a pro-Big Oil, conservative framing that didn’t quite reflect how voters actually felt about those issues.
As we see with the Chevron ads, Big Oil is actively trying to influence the way cable news audiences view its brand. That’s why it's critical that these news shows cover stories that challenge industry greenwashing and use them as an opportunity to inform viewers about Big Oil’s outsized contributions to climate change and ways that we can limit their political power. And as the fallout around these major actions against Big Oil continues -- network news has an opportunity to increase the quantity of this coverage as well.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream and Kinetiq video databases for all original programming on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC; the national morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC; and PBS’ NewsHour for segments about either Big Oil news or the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) climate report from May 26 through June 1, 2021.
For Big Oil news, we searched for transcripts with any of the terms “Exxon,” “Shell,” “Chevron,” “ExxonMobil,” “big oil,” “oil company,” “gas company,” or “oil and gas industry” within close proximity of any of the terms “climate,” “warming,” “emissions,” “court,” “lawsuit,” “shareholder,” “activist,” “investor,” “board,” “carbon,” “Paris accord,” “Paris agreement,” or “net zero.” For news about the WMO climate report, we searched for transcripts with any of the terms “report,” “study,” “World Meteorological Organization,” “WMO,” or “survey” within close proximity of any of the terms “degree,” “Celsius,” “climate,” “warming,” “Farenheit,” “hottest,” or “temperature.”
We counted segments, which we defined as instances when either the Big Oil news or WMO report was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of the Big Oil news or the WMO report. We defined significant discussion as two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussing one of these topics with each other.
To determine the number of individual Chevron advertisements, we searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for the specific phrase “at Chevron, we're taking action" on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC from May 26 through June 1, 2021. We counted all advertisements that cable networks ran during any programming in the studied time frame, not just advertisements that they ran during climate segments.