Deception in the Media and Conflict-of-Interest within Environmental Journalism
Media remains an important part of our everyday lives. Our thoughts and belief systems are largely shaped around the information the media presents to us, as well as the way in which the information itself is framed.
But what if the information we receive is inaccurate?
Deception and inaccuracy in the media continues to be an ongoing issue, especially in environmental journalism.
Environment: where are we now?
Coral Reefs are dying. Animals are being pushed to extinction. Sea levels are steadily rising. Weather is becoming extreme. Climate change is a real issue to which no race, class, religion or country is immune. It remains to be an ongoing threat to our health, people, wildlife, weather, agriculture, infrastructure, transportation and overall quality of life.
ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest oil and gas corporation, heavily contributed to climate science through funding long term research and academic publications. All of their research and science concluded that climate change, is/was in fact, a significant threat. The company proceeded to launch a sophisticated campaign nearly 40 years ago which intentionally promoted the message that climate risk “may be a sham“, in spite of their own research.
Investigations found that Exxon had been aware of the dangers of burning fossil fuels since the 1970’s. This misinformation in the advertorials led the public to believe that there was no risk to the climate.
“Available documents show a discrepancy between what ExxonMobil’s scientists and executives discussed about climate change privately and in academic circles and what it presented to the general public”
Many fossil fuel companies persistently lobby politicians in order to feed their message through these members. Exxon strategically placed themselves within this sphere by paying U.S. Congress member Jim Inhofe, who has formerly been known to consider climate change a hoax. This connection, and multiple other political relationships, influenced federal policies and helped support and spread Government communications on global warming. Exxon was additionally part of the Global Climate Coalition, a group of international corporations that publicly fought Government efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These devised strategies funded climate denial. Similarly, Exxon’s campaign has commonly been compared to tobacco companies and their tactics in selling a harmful substance in order to protect profit.
When sending information to the mass public, ethical principles need to be heavily considered. According to researcher Ward, “ethical considerations arise in virtually all aspects of news and opinion writing”. I’ve taken a look at some of the main problems within the Exxon case…
Informed Deception and Inaccuracy: ExxonMobil misled the general public over a long period of time by intentionally fuelling climate denial ads through framing techniques and inaccurate, misleading information. These broadcasted messages contradicted their own research, resulting in the public understandably losing trust in future statements.
Institutional Conflict of Interest, Inequity: Public interest on smaller and larger scales were not prioritised. This campaign, which highly lacked professionalism, demonstrated poor company values and character. This reputation ultimately affected the company employee’s own professional standing (Pearson & Polden 2019, p.17). On a larger scale, Exxon had a duty to inform the public and failed to do so. This unfair behaviour potentially put the greater public health and wellbeing in danger, causing harm (Pearson & Polden 2019, pp.12-13). All of these acts were done to endorse Exxon’s business.
A journalist has acted deceptively in the course of investigation (a) if he or she has, through lying or through a nonverbal equivalent to lying, attempted to initiate or sustain a false belief; or Cb) if the reporter, by withholding information that he or she is morally required to tell, has(Elliott & Culver 1992, p.77)
allowed another person to form or sustain a false belief.
Overall, this case would have breached Australia’s Press Council Statement of General Principles, MEAA Journalists Code of Ethics and the PR Institute Australia Code of Ethics (PRIA):
- Accuracy and clarity
- Fairness and balance
- Privacy and avoidance of harm
- Integrity and transparency
- (Pearson & Polden 2019, pp.529-530)
- Exxon suppressed relevant/accurate information, distorting emphasis
- Personal interest undermined accuracy + fairness
- Used journalistic position for personal gain (took advantage of power)
- Advertising and commercial interests undermined accuracy/fair/independence
- (Pearson and Polden 2019, pp.527-528)
PRIA Code of Ethics:
- Did not deal fairly and honestly
- Brought discredit to themselves and employees
- Knowingly disseminated false and misleading information
- (Pearson & Polden 2019, pp.529-530)
Where Do We Go From Here?
According to author Ward (2009), it is impossible for journalists to remain completely objective on a subject they are both observing and reporting. It is considered ethically wrong for a journalist to have this strong of an influence. Exxon created their own research, making them the researcher, while simultaneously reported on the findings, also making them the journalist.
Broadcasters need to be held accountable for publishing misinformation. Professional communicators should constantly reflect on the message being sent out and question whether they meet ethical and legal industry standards. Researchers Pearson and Polden have termed this practice “reflection-in-action”. This can improve the quality of work.
In order to avoid consuming misinformation, consumers need to question where they’re getting their information from, who the producer is, what their motives are, who is benefitting, and question how much bias the source may have towards the topic. Petitioners have reportedly pleaded for lawmakers to ban large corporations from participating in political matters.
All in all, media deception within environmental journalism is still an issue. Mass media is an important part of the information society but when the public is receiving misinformation, trust is ultimately lost. Viewers have become far more skeptical of the content they view, especially in this day and age.
Cseh, A. 2019, ‘Aligning climate action with the self-interest and short-term dominated priorities for decision-makers’, Climate Policy, vol. 19, iss. 2, pp. 139-146.
Elliott, D. & Culver, C. 1992, ‘Defining and analysing journalistic deception. ‘Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol. 7, iss. 2, pp.69-84. <http://www.tandfonline.com/Edoi/pdf/10.1207/s15327728jmme0702_1>.
Ireton, C. & Posetti, J. 2018, Journalism, Fake News & Disinformation, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), France.
Mathews, R. 2016, ‘Exxons’ crimes against humanity’, TDS Environmental Media, viewed on 14th May 2019,
Moser, S.C. 2010, ‘Communicating climate change: history, challenges, process and future directions’, Climate Change, vol 1, pp. 31-53.
Pearson & Polden 2019, The Journalists Guide to Media Law, 6th ed., Allen and Unwin, Sydney, Australia.
Savage, K. 2019, ‘EU considers banning Exxon lobbying because of company’s climate deception’, Climate Liability News, viewed on 10 May 2019,<https://www.climateliabilitynews.org/2019/03/21/eu-parliament-exxon-climate-deception/>.
Supran, G. & Oreskes, N. 2017, ‘Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977-2014)’, Environmental Research Letters, no. 12, pp. 1-18.
Union of Concerned Scientists 2007, ‘Smoke, mirrors and hot air: How ExxonMobil uses big tobacco’s tactics to manufacture uncertainty on climate science’, viewed 17th May 2019,<https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/global_warming/exxon_report.pdf>.
Wahyuni, H. 2017, ‘Mainstreaming climate change issues: Challenges for journalism in Indonesia’, Pacific Journalism Review, vol. 23, iss. 1, pp. 80-95.
Ward, B. 2009, ‘Journalism ethics and climate change reporting in a period of intense media uncertainty’, Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics, vol. 9, iss. 13.