May 26 was good. The news made it bad.
News outlets that covered the big climate wins of May 26 overwhelmingly chose to center the oil industry’s plight over the planet’s progress.
A couple weeks ago, I lightly complained about news articles that frame climate wins as oil losses. To explain my annoyance, I cited three headlines about the May 26 climate activist victories against Exxon, Chevron, and Shell. They all called it a “Bad Day” for Big Oil.
Over the next few days, I received several messages from readers alerting me to more examples. So in the interest of a fuller picture, I decided to do a more intensive search of news articles about the May 26 climate wins.
What I found has turned my light complaint into a formal grievance. Out of 27 news articles that covered the May 26 climate wins, 24 centered the oil industry’s plight over the planet’s progress. In other words, one of the best days in recent memory for humanity’s future was overwhelming painted by the news media as a loss. It was the best possible framing Big Oil could have asked for.
I’ll explain why in a minute. First, here’s what I found.
Headlines that framed May 26 as a negative (21)
A bad day for Big Oil. (Washington Post)
Big Oil’s Bad, Bad Day. (The New Yorker)
Bad day for big oil. (PRX - The World)
A Bad Day for Big Oil. - (Climate Nexus/The Defender)
Big Oil and Gas had a no good, very bad day. (The Verge)
A very bad day for Big Oil. (Popular Information)
Big Oil's Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. (Wonkette)
A Bad Day At Black Rock For Big Oil. (CleanTechnica)
Big Oil finds it hard to ignore pollution amid investor, court pressure. Included this more for the lede: “Yesterday was a bad day to be an oil company.” (Ars Technica)
Why Big Oil should be worried after a day of reckoning. (Vox)
Big Oil suffers historic blows on climate. (Politico)
“Crushing defeats” for Big Oil. (National Observer)
Big Oil suffered three major blows this week. (The Independent)
Exxon, Shell, and Chevron All Lose Big on Climate Battles. (Treehugger)
The Week That Shook Big Oil. (NPR)
Three strikes for Big Oil. (Grist)
Big Setbacks Propel Oil Giants Toward a ‘Tipping Point’(New York Times)
The Day the World Changed for Big Oil. (Bloomberg)
Investors, court deliver ‘stark warning for Big Oil’ on climate. (Reuters)
Big Oil’s bad day won’t change much in the foreseeable future. (Globe and Mail)
Big Oil Reckons With Climate Change. Also a notable lede: “Depending on your perspective, Wednesday was a bad day to be an oil company, or a good day to be a climate activist.” (Science Friday)
Headlines that framed May 26 as a positive (3)
Activists Just Scored Big Wins Against ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell. (Time)
Climate activists hail breakthrough victories over Exxon and Shell. (Financial Times).
Climate change activists win against Exxon Mobil and Chevron. (Australia Broadcasting Corporation)
Headlines that framed May 26 as negative and positive, but led with negative (3)
A Bad Day For Big Oil As Climate Activists Score Wins. (The Mehdi Hasan Show, which I was the guest for)
Why a ‘crushing’ day for Big Oil represents a watershed moment in the climate battle. (CNBC)
Black gold blues: Climate wins signal sea change for Big Oil. (Al Jazeera)
Headlines that framed May 26 as negative and positive, but led with positive (0)
I could not find any of these.
There are likely more articles about the three May 26 climate victories I missed. If you see any, subscribers, feel free to point them out in the comments. (Note: I’m only looking at articles about all three climate victories, not singular ones.)
But this analysis illustrates a fairly common phenomenon. News outlets routinely favor a political framing over an existential framing when it comes to climate stories. In general, the push-and-pull between industry and activists is given greater attention than the fight over everyone’s health and economic well-being.
This framing is preferred in part because it sells. The Left sees a “bad day for Big Oil” and celebrates. The fossil fuel-backed Right sees the same and freaks out. Both result in great click-and-share rates—way better than the rates for “A good day for life on Earth.” (Believe me, I know.)
But this framing is also preferred in part because it’s safe. Though the news industry has made great strides in climate truth-telling, there is still one basic fact many outlets remain unwilling to state plainly: that stabilizing the climate requires an end to oil and gas extraction.
Describing May 26 as “A good day for life on Earth” means admitting to that fact, and becoming vulnerable to cries of bias from the oil industry and its allies. News outlets don’t want to deal with that, so they simply call it “a bad day for Big Oil,” and let the industry attack those pesky oil-hating climate activists instead.
Describing May 26 as a “bad day” is not a problem on its own. It was a bad day for Big Oil. The problem is that May 26 was also a lot more—a historic day for the power of activism and the future of the planet—and barely anyone consumed it as such. There will be more opportunities to get it right in the future; more good days for the planet are coming. If we systemically framed the climate fight as one for all our lives, not just the life of Big Oil, there might be a lot more.
TV News is getting better at talking about Big Oil. I don’t know if you guys know this, but there is another climate accountability newsletter that is also written by someone named Emily. It’s called EXXONKNEWS, and today’s edition is also about media coverage of May 26. Specifically, it’s about TV media coverage, which Media Matters researcher Ted MacDonald says was actually not so bad. Of course, there is room for improvement. Read more here.
The Weather Channel is expanding its climate coverage. Variety reports today that the Weather Channel “plans to infuse climate coverage into its morning, afternoon and even entertainment programs” in a way “that audiences won’t be able to ignore.” This includes an evening show about prospectors searching for gold amid Greenland’s melting permafrost. Coolcoolcool.
Media covers G7 climate commitments differently. At the Group of Seven summit over the weekend, the powerful group of counties promised to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 and agreed on the need to end the use of coal without setting a deadline to do so. Media covered this differently: The New York Times called the action ‘aggressive,’ while the BBC said it “disappointed activists,” Columbia Journalism Review reported. CJR also added that while “most media coverage has focused on such emissions cuts … a Paris Agreement promise to provide $100 billion to under-resourced countries has [also] not been fulfilled.” That pledge is “equally important, though much less discussed,” despite “the truism that climate change is overwhelmingly caused by the rich but disproportionately punishes the poor.”
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Catch of the Day:
Fish and I hope you had a lovely Pride weekend.
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Stay hydrated, eat plants, break a sweat, and have a great day!
Emily — that was a great post to read. I appreciated the reminder of context and framing for news consumption. We can all use help in that arena more often, I suspect. So, as I was scrolling to bottom, happy to see Fish recuperating so comfortably from his heavy PRIDE weekend efforts, I thought of this one parallel: the media’s need to frame local news as violent crime and communities in conflict (take whichever conflict category you want) as a means of sustaining their kind of “journalism.” Shorter take: bad news is good clickbait. We need to wean ourselves off that teat.
This makes me want to re-click on that "good day for life on Earth," just to even things out :)
Here's hoping for many more of those good days for the planet.