WSJ Obscures Contributors' Fossil Fuel Ties

An analysis by the Checks & Balances Project finds that 60 major newspapers frequently quote fossil fuel-funded think tanks on energy and environmental issues without disclosing their industry ties. Further research by Media Matters finds that the Wall Street Journal's lack of disclosure has been especially glaring.

The Checks & Balances Project found that between 2007-2011, industry-funded organizations like the Heartland Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation were cited or quoted over 1000 times in 60 publications, often to attack environmental regulations or renewable energy technology. Their ties to fossil fuel interests were disclosed only 6 percent of the time, despite the fact that 17 percent of mentions promoted fossil fuels. The analysis concluded that “a transactional relationship of contributions in exchange for national media traction is playing out” between these groups and their corporate benefactors.

Expanding on these results, Media Matters found that the Wall Street Journal cited, quoted or featured these think tanks on energy issues more than 100 times between 2007-2011 -- more than any of the other other major papers evaluated by Checks & Balances. But the Journal -- which has a history of failing to disclose fossil fuel ties - mentioned the funding sources for these groups just under 4 percent of the time, slightly worse than the average disclosure rate for the other 60 publications.

The following chart illustrates what proportion of print coverage disclosed fossil fuel ties:

Data for Washington Post, Politico, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and AP is courtesy of Checks & Balances Project

The few times the Journal did disclose industry ties include a 2007 editorial that defended front groups against charges of bias. That editorial, by AEI president Chris DeMuth, sought to minimize the significance of Exxon's contributions to his organization. A second acknowledgment of fossil fuel funding came in a letter to the editor written by climate scientist Michael Mann. But that letter was written in response to an op-ed by the Cato Institute's Patrick Michaels, which did not disclose Cato's funding. The Journal featured just two hard news accounts noting that some of its prolific energy contributors (and fossil fuel defenders) were recipients of polluter largesse.

Notably, about 17 percent of the think tank mentions undermined the scientific consensus that human activity is driving harmful climate change, frequently referring to those urging emissions cuts as “alarmists.” The Cato Institute cast doubt on climate change five times, the most of any think tank.

Earlier in 2012, the Union of Concerned Scientists found that climate change coverage in the Journal's opinion section was “overwhelmingly misleading,” noting that 81 percent of the representations of climate science were inaccurate. This was no surprise given the Journal's long history of casting doubt on established environmental science to undermine regulatory action. Earlier this year, the Journal published an op-ed by non-experts that misled readers on climate science, but declined to publish an op-ed by a physicist who studied the issue and re-confirmed the temperature record. Science columnist Matt Ridley has been an especially fertile source of climate misinformation.