Fronting for fossil fuels

A study says that the media rarely discloses think tanks’ industry funding

According to a report released in early December by the Checks & Balances Project, a self-avowed “pro-clean energy watchdog group,” the press routinely quote think tanks that bash clean energy policies and technologies without mentioning that the groups receive significant funding from fossil fuel interests.

From 2007-2011, 10 of those organizations, including the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, received a combined total of almost $16.3 million from ExxonMobil and three foundations supported by oil and gas companies, according to the Checks & Balances Project. In the same time period, the organizations were mentioned 1,010 times in articles about energy issues in 58 daily newspapers, as well as the Associated Press and Politico, but the media described their financial ties to the fossil fuels industry only 6 percent of the time.

Most of the time (53 percent), news outlets used only an organization’s name—no more, no less. Occasionally, they would describe the organization’s ideology, with terms like “conservative” (17 percent) or “libertarian” (6 percent) and rarely by its location (3 percent) or function (e.g. “think tank” or “nonpartisan” group) (3 percent).

The outlets that disclosed a group’s industry ties most frequently were the Houston Chronicle (15 percent), The Washington Post (12 percent), and The New York Times (10 percent). Fourteen major metropolitan dailies never mentioned industry ties in stories quoting fossil fuel-funded think tanks, including The Christian Science Monitor, which quoted such groups in 42 stories during the five-year period of the study, and the Orange County Register, which quoted them in 57 stories.

“These think tanks’ ability to move pro-fossil fuels industry messaging is much more effective when they appear to be unbiased or neutral institutes,” said Gabe Elsner, co-director of the Checks & Balances Project. “So there is a need for more disclosure in the media—to be more honest and transparent about their funding. It would be one thing if these groups had hidden their ties in one story, but they hid their ties in nearly 1,000 stories. That starts to seem like planned deception on the part of these groups.”

The problem with accusations like that, of course, is that Checks & Balances is another one of the interest groups doing battle on energy issues, so it, too, has skin in the game, even if that stake is more ideological than financial—and that shows in its report.

The project is funded by the Renew American Prosperity, Inc. (another vaguely titled group), which supports clean energy development. The group gets some money from “a clean-tech attorney,” according to Elsner, but he couldn’t say if it received any from other renewable energy or interests.

“We’re totally open about our funding,” he said. “We’d actually love it if clean energy companies contributed to the Check & Balances Project.”

So, there’s that. But there are also a few issues with the project’s report on the think tanks and the fossil fuels industry. In support of its assertion that those groups have “a more transactional relationship with corporate lobbying interests that donate to them,” offering favorable quotes for support, the report cited a confidential “climate strategy” document that allegedly leaked from the Heartland Institute last February, but Heartland insists it’s a fake and no one has been able to verify its authenticity.

The one instance of poor sourcing doesn’t negate the report’s assertion that there is a “transactional relationship” between think tanks and industry (there’s plenty of other evidence for that) but it reveals a lack of methodological rigor.

Elsner wasn’t sure, for instance, whether or not any of the money that fossil fuel interests gave to think tanks was earmarked for pursuits other than energy policy. “Most of it was general operational support,” he said, but the report doesn’t provide any context about how much of the organizations’ budgets that money accounted for or how it was used.

Similarly, to support the assertion that fossil fuel-funded think tanks “disproportionately received coverage in influential newspapers that help shape the national agenda,” the group compared the amount of attention they received to the amount received the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is funded by the US Department of Energy. Think tanks got four times the coverage, according to the report. But when you look closer, the NREL was mentioned more than any of the 10 other think tanks except the Heritage Foundation. There’s also the fact that the Checks & Balances Project didn’t look at the coverage of any left-leaning think tanks.

“I think the NREL, as an independent institute, federally funded research laboratory, should be cited and quoted far more than all of these organizations, because the mission of NREL is to make sure the public and other parts of government know the facts about the research and development behind the clean energy industry,” Elsner said when asked about the fairness of comparing 10 oranges to one apple.

None of these criticisms necessarily invalidate the Checks & Balances Project’s central point that interest groups hide behind neutral sounding titles in order to promote their sponsors’ agendas, and that the media don’t do nearly enough to unmask them. Also, to its credit, the project stresses that “fossil fuel-funded organizations have every right to participate in the public debate. But readers have every right to know that those who are mentioned are financially tied to lobbying interests that benefit from their point of view.”

And for his part, Elsner said the same rules of disclosure should also apply to think tanks that represent clean energy interests.

“I think that the public will be better off with more transparency across the board,” he said. “When we’re debating the future of our energy in this country, it’s important that the public is well informed who’s writing it, and what their opinion and bias might be, so that they can form their own opinions on what they think the future of our energy system should be.”

It’s hard to argue with that, and despite the shortcomings in the Checks & Balances Project’s report, as energy rolls on as one of the country’s most divisive political issues, journalists should do a much a better job of describing the backgrounds and financial interests of the groups and individuals they quote.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.