Historically and today, media institutions and public relations firms have remained complicit in climate-related disinformation campaigns by fossil fuel companies, a climate reporter said on Wednesday.
Spring resident journalist Amy Westervelt of the Critical Frequency podcast discussed the role of the media in communicating, and often obscuring, the science of climate change on Wednesday night at a La Follette seminar.
Historically, many people viewed large oil companies as natural helpers, as the fossil fuel industry provided funds for infrastructure, wealth and development for small communities, Westervelt said. But no one has yet fully understood the environmental impacts of this industry. In fact, the first controversies journalists denounced the oil industry for were their abusive labor practices.
Journalists intervened to report on workers’ strikes and to preserve their reputation, oil companies had to launch public relations campaigns. The techniques used by these campaigns would come later to repel environmental activists.
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“There are these things that we think are organic ideas that just happened or that the narrative around certain issues has just naturally evolved over time, and yet there are often. [PR] people who work behind the scenes who get paid a little and who are pretty good at their jobs, ”Westervelt said.
At the time, investigative journalists like Ida Tarbell, who spoke out against Standard Oil and Rachel Carson, who wrote about the impacts of pesticides on the environment, had the resources to speak out against these massive industries, but today , Westervelt said, journalists don’t always have the resources to keep these companies under control.
“We don’t have so many Ida Tarbells, or Upton Sinclairs, or those antagonistic investigative journalists,” Westervelt said. “You take these [PR] techniques and give them the benefit of 100 years of refinement and then put them in a context where journalists are invited to produce much more content in much less time for much less money where access to journalism is rewarded. .and suddenly we have a very big information problem. “
Additionally, big oil PR leaders like Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee have used psychological tools to smash unions and mount campaigns rooted in patriotism against truth-seeking journalists.
Often times, these campaigns would position anyone against Big Oil as socialist or anti-American.
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“The American way or idea is how the oil industry has positioned itself,” Westervelt said. “Coming out of WWII, you get a new breed of PR guys who are trained in psychological warfare and propaganda, and fighting the Nazis, who come home and put that to work for the people. companies.
As environmental movements gathered pace in the 1970s, fossil fuel companies changed their public relations tactics to push environmental responsibility onto the consumer, Westervelt said. By telling consumers to pick up the garbage, they would not have to take responsibility for pollution themselves.
Sponsored content – or content that is published in a newspaper as if it were a regular article but actually paid for by a company – also emerged around this time, which fossil fuel companies were using to position their content as if it were a reported story, Westervelt mentioned.
And, the fossil fuel executives would harangue journalists for allowing them to share “their side of the story,” by positioning companies as people with feelings, Westervelt said, which created this idea of false equivalence, or “Bilateralism”.
“Journalists thought that if I’m doing a story about climate change, I have to talk to a climate scientist and an oil business executive who doesn’t think climate change is happening,” Westervelt said.
Westervelt said that so often these companies have tied the hands of reporters in these situations, the media industry still has a lot to accuse of being complicit in and continuing to perpetuate these damaging public relations strategies.
Even today, Westervelt said we can see things like carbon footprint calculators shifting the climate crisis to the fault of the consumer. But, a new generation of young climate activists and investigative journalists once again diving into fossil fuel companies may begin to reform the way we think about climate.
And now it’s more important than ever to hold these institutions accountable, Westervelt said.
“You have to look at the PR industry and the media industry to be that sensitive to it, as well as the oil industry,” Westervelt said. “The idea of taking this systemic problem and shifting the blame from the companies who profit from this problem to the consumer.”