CNN + BP = ???

HEATED's research assistant documents his journey to find answers about CNN's sponsored content agreement with oil giant BP.

First: Say hi to Chris May!

Before we get to today’s main item, I have some exciting news. About a month ago, I hired a research assistant. His name is Chris May, and today’s post was written by him.

Chris recently graduated from Portland State University, where he studied Chinese literature, journalism, and documentary filmmaking. He worked as a reporter and international editor for his student paper, the Portland State Vanguard. He’s now a freelance reporter and researcher. He likes hiking, travel, and poetry.

I hired Chris for a few reasons. First, he wouldn’t stop e-mailing me asking if he could help me. It was annoying. I liked that. I needed someone who would annoy the crap out of people on my behalf—and that’s exactly what Chris did for today’s story. (Sorry, CNN communications guy).

Second, in my initial phone conversation with Chris, I asked him he was interested in pursuing any career path other than journalism. He said no. I asked why, and he said a version of what his bio for the Vanguard says: “I am passionate about journalism because it allows me to step into worlds I would otherwise never know while channeling my curiosity toward serving and informing the community.”

State school degree? Unafraid to be annoying? An uncompromising and unrealistic dedication to a career field that is slowly crumbling based on principles of public service? You’re hired, buddy. (Also, Chris’s first e-mail to me mentioned that he was “hydrated,” which I appreciated. Have you had any water today?)

A primer on today’s story

So far, Chris’s main job for me has been managing the Fossil Fuel Ad Anthology, HEATED’s Instagram account tracking how fossil fuel companies attempt to influence public opinion through ads. Today’s article is about what happened when I asked Chris to dig deeper into an advertising relationship he found between oil giant BP and news giant CNN.

We are not interested in this relationship because we think BP is influencing CNN’s editorial choices. We’re interested in it because we weren’t sure the relationship between CNN and BP was being communicated to readers effectively.

As HEATED has previously reported, readers are often tricked by native advertising and sponsored content. (Here are three studies on the subject). Still, media professionals continue to defend advertising relationships with fossil fuel companies—often by using the defense that their relationships are clearly marked, and easy for readers to understand.

I think Chris’s journey offers evidence to the contrary—but I’d love to hear your thoughts. When you’re done, if you have them, send them to emily@heated.world.

Also, one last plug: Chris’s hire would not have been possible without your support. So thanks for being here—and if you’re interested in helping me grow the team (or helping Chris help me full-time), become a paid subscriber today!

CNN + BP = ???

By Chris May

It’s hard enough for the average media consumer to untangle relationships between fossil fuel corporations and media organizations. But today, I want to share with you how difficult the process can be, even for reporters.

Unlike most people, I actively seek out fossil fuel advertisements when I’m online (for the Fossil Fuel Ad Anthology). The other day, I stumbled across a mosaic of BP ads surrounding a CNN article on transitioning to clean energy. 

Usually, fossil fuel ads merely surround news content. But this time, there was a BP ad on CNN’s actual content—specifically, a video asking if oil and gas companies can “help the transition to clean energy.” I wondered: had BP bought advertising for this page specifically, or was it sponsoring the actual content? Or both?

I did some research, and learned that BP was sponsoring an entire project that produced this story: CNN Business’s Global Energy Challenge. The project features approximately two dozen short videos, twice as many articles, and a handful of longer documentaries all centered around the global energy industry’s response to climate change and growing demand. BP’s website said the company is “working with media giant CNN to produce a new TV series that explores some of the innovative ways the world is meeting growing demand for energy, while addressing the rise in carbon emissions.”

I reached out to CNN network’s communications VP Jonathan Hawkins with questions both about the nature of the sponsorship, and how the sponsorship was presented to readers. Among other things, I asked why there was nothing on the page that said “sponsored by BP,” and why BP’s logo only appeared on three Global Energy Challenge documentaries, not the entire 23-documentary series.

Here’s Hawkins’ response:

BP is a sponsor of the Global Energy Challenge and as such adheres to our strict sponsorships policy. The editorial content is commissioned and produced solely by CNN editorial staff or external contractors approved by CNN editorial, and is produced to CNN editorial guidelines.

At no stage do sponsors have a say in which stories CNN covers, which people CNN interviews, or how we present our editorial content, nor do sponsors review or approve any content before it airs or is published.

Production of feature programmes and sponsored content is by a standalone, independently funded unit within CNN, with its own staff and production funding.  The budgets for this department are not funded directly from advertising or sponsorship revenue generated from the programming it produces.

The nature of the sponsorship seemed clear enough. But I still wondered about the presentation; Hawkins had not answered those questions. 

I pointed this out to Hawkins, and he responded tersely. “Not sure I understand your point here,” he said. “There are pre-roll ads on the videos on our site, so the sponsorship is clear.” Hawkins then reiterated: “As per my previous email, at no stage do sponsors have a say in which stories CNN covers, which people CNN interviews, or how we present our editorial content, nor do sponsors review or approve any content before it airs or is published.”

This was kind of annoying, because I was not implying BP had a role in the editorial production. I was asking how the sponsorship was being communicated to readers. So I pointed Hawkins to CNN’s own sponsorships policy. It states that “When [sponsorship] happens, you will see ‘In Association With’ next to their logos in banners at the top of pages on our website and hear it referenced during commercial breaks on television.” There wasn’t a banner at the top of the page on these videos; the pre-roll ads only appeared in three videos on the page; none of the other video content mentioned BP's sponsorship. How is that clear?

Hawkins responded that “The rest of this particular page is a mix of related content and not sponsored here in the United States.”

What? I had more questions. But before I could respond, I noticed something odd: there was now a BP logo at the top of the Global Energy Challenge page.

Wait—did CNN just add this logo in response to my inquiry?

I asked CNN to comment on why there now appeared to be two different versions of webpages for the Global Energy Challenge, and why one of them had a BP logo and the other one didn’t.

After sending links and screenshots to both pages, Hawkins said: “Outside the United States there is an umbrella sponsorship of the page, so you must be seeing that using a VPN or it’s from another computer.”

OK, so BP sponsors the entire Global Energy Challenge outside of the United States, but not within it? How is that a thing? If BP sponsors the entire Global Energy Challenge documentary series anywhere, don’t readers everywhere deserve to know about it?

There’s much more to the email exchange, but here’s the gist of the whole thing: Hawkins repeatedly insisted that the sponsorship arrangement between CNN and BP was clear. Perhaps that’s true for corporate lawyers and marketing executives, but it’s not clear to me. Is it clear to you, average, everyday reader?

Also, I had to ask three times about why there were only BP ads on three videos before I got an answer. Here is a sampling of some more questions I asked that I did not get clear answers to:

  • How much has BP contributed to the series, and what percentage of the series’s total production costs are covered by BP’s sponsorship?

  • Do companies like BP sponsor content without even knowing what it will be?

  • How does CNN decide which content features logos, banners or other announcements of sponsoring partnerships?

  • Does CNN have different practices for how it discloses sponsored content arrangements to U.S. and non-U.S. audiences? Is the disparity between what U.S. and non-U.S. audiences see due to legal requirements or decisions made by CNN executives? (This gets back to the larger question above: If BP sponsors the entire Global Energy Challenge documentary series anywhere, don’t readers everywhere deserve to know about it?)

  • Has BP communicated its plans to CNN to “stop corporate reputation advertising,” as HEATED reported on last week? What sponsorship partnerships are still in place with the company and when are they scheduled to expire?

We look forward to one day getting answers to these questions. Until then, we disagree that this sponsored content is “clear.”

One last note

Hey guys, Emily again. I just wanted to hone in on what I think is the most important takeaway from Chris’s reporting.

In the above exchange, Hawkins repeatedly insisted that BP doesn’t have any part in CNN’s making or producing of content. This is something that happens a lot. When asked about the ethics of sponsored content and advertising, journalists and sales executives often respond by defending the separation of editorial and sales. BP has no role in the reporting of CNN stories. Our reporters aren’t compromised. How dare you even imply otherwise?

That’s cool, that’s dope, that’s great—but we really don’t care. Editorial influence was never the core point of Chris’s questions. His questions surround a completely different issue: Are CNN readers aware that they are reading journalism BP paid for them to be seeing? Are readers aware that BP hopes they read these selective facts, so BP can more effectively promote a specific climate policy agenda? 

We’re not confused about whether BP is secretly reporting these stories. We’re confused about whether CNN is communicating the sponsorship effectively, so their readers aren’t manipulated by BP’s sophisticated PR campaign to mislead the public about climate change. 

The biggest problem here is not just that marketing execs refuse to admit these sponsorship agreements with fossil fuel companies are confusing to the average reader. Journalists themselves also refuse to publicly grapple with how their reporting is being used. 

I asked CNN reporter John Defterios, who reported the stories sponsored by BP, if he is comfortable with CNN's partnership with the company, and with the oil industry's use of journalism more broadly to promote its climate policy agenda. I have not yet heard back; but will update you if I do.

In the meantime, for more on this subject, check out Amy Westervelt’s latest piece in The Nation, where she reached out to multiple news organizations with questions about their relationships with fossil fuel companies and they also refused to answer.

OK, that’s all for today—thank for reading HEATED!

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Questions? Comments? Tips? Send ‘em to emily@heated.world.