The questions Semafor ignored
Judging from the news company's canned response to other outlets, it's easy to see why HEATED's inquiry about Chevron's misleading ad went unanswered.
The second-largest polluting corporation in the world is still sponsoring and spreading misinformation in the climate change newsletter of Semafor, the new global news company founded by ex-Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith and ex-Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith.
Semafor released its second climate newsletter sponsored by Chevron on Thursday. Titled “World’s climate fail,” the newsletter contained details of a new U.N. report showing that the world is failing to meet its climate goals. It also contained the same paltering Chevron ad as last week, which misleads its readers about the oil giant’s efforts to fight climate change.
Semafor refused to defend the Chevron ad to HEATED when we called it out on Wednesday. Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief, affirmatively declined to answer questions about it. Instead, he directed HEATED to a spokesperson who he said could answer questions related to advertising. That spokesperson then ignored HEATED’s questions.
The Semafor spokesperson did not, however, ignore everyone’s inquiries about the Chevron sponsorship. They provided identical statements to Molly Taft at Earther, and to Isobel Cockerell at Coda. The statements read:
Advertisers have no bearing on our editorial coverage and we maintain a strict separation between news and third-party advertisement. Semafor adheres to robust ad acceptability guidelines that are industry standard. Any ads that are featured across our products are transparently positioned to the reader and clearly contextualized as advertising.
Judging from that response, it becomes easy to see why Semafor chose to ignore HEATED’s questions. In our inquiry, we specifically told Semafor we weren’t looking for answers related to their editorial independence. We said we were only asking about one specific thing: whether Semafor is selling advertisers on opportunities to spread misinformation on its platform.
Semafor couldn’t answer that. So they didn’t.
Read HEATED’s full inquiry to Semafor
To be sure, it’s completely possible (and perhaps probable!) that Semafor ignored HEATED because it thinks we’re small potatoes; that nothing this tiny reader-funded outlet will say could affect their $25 million corporate-funded operation.
But I personally like to believe it’s because of our detailed inquiry, which specifically said we were not looking for unrelated answers about Semafor’s editorial independence, which news outlets commonly use to deflect questions about their misleading fossil fuel ads.
As we said on Wednesday, “It’s an incredibly disingenuous response, and frankly an insult to the reason we ask the question. … We just don’t want to see your readers misled. Why don’t you?”
Here’s our full, unanswered inquiry to Semafor’s advertising team:
This is Emily Atkin, I write a popular climate newsletter called HEATED. Ben Smith gave me your contact info and said you'd be able to provide context on a recent Chevron ad that ran in Semafor climate, which I'm writing about for my newsletter tomorrow.
I'm writing about the ad because it is misleading your readers about Chevron's massive impact on the climate crisis. It is a textbook example of greenwashing, a misinformation tactic sometimes used by high-polluting corporations to falsely paint their operations as environmentally-friendly.
Specifically, the claim that Chevron is "working toward a lower carbon future" by investing in renewable natural gas is paltering, the practice of saying things that on their own are literally true, but create a misleading overall impression of the company. Sure, renewable natural gas is technically a "lower carbon" technology, but it is also not renewable, not natural, and not a large-scale climate solution. In addition, scientists say a zero carbon or carbon neutral future is necessary to avoid climate catastrophe—not a “lower carbon” future, which is purposefully vague.
Climate misinformation such as this plays a huge role in placating the public, falsely soothing them into believing polluters are taking meaningful action to solve this horrible crisis, when they are not. So I hope Semafor takes it seriously.
My questions for you are:
What are Semafor's policies on misleading and deceptive advertising, including greenwashing?
Does this Chevron advertisement meet Semafor's requirements for truthful advertising?
The Guardian and other news outlets have banned fossil fuel advertisements specifically because they so often mislead people into thinking the companies are climate-friendy. What was the process of creating Semafor's advertising guidelines, and were the ethics of fossil fuel advertising ever considered?
I also want to emphasize that I am not asking about the firewall between Semafor's editorial and advertising teams. I am asking about whether Semafor is selling advertisers on opportunities to spread misinformation on its platform.
My deadline is COB today, and I can be reached here by e-mail or at [phone number]. I appreciate the attention.
Also, here’s a separate inquiry I sent to Ben Smith after he had already declined to be interviewed over text:
Hi Ben, I tried to send this over text, but it is not going through. I have a couple editorial questions unrelated to advertising that I figured I'd try you on.
My questions are:
-How does Semafor plan to cover climate misinformation and greenwashing? How seriously will Semafor take these topics?
-Will Semafor's climate coverage include fact-checking the paltering and greenwashing commonly found in oil industry climate ads, including the ones it runs?
My deadline is COB today. Thanks
It also went unanswered.
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PALATE CLEANSER: You guys ever been to Sedona? Freakin’ unbelievable!
CATCH OF THE DAY: A little fall Fishy for your viewing pleasure.
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Keep asking the tough questions, Emily! Eventually, they'll hopefully have to answer!
Three quick notes.
1) You're spot on about Ben & Semafor trying to play they're something new, but doing the same old song & dance as too many other news outlets, Emily. Thanks for your tenaciousness. Keep that up.
2) Sedona is AMAZEBALLS - to visit. Some odd local issues there. Still, the scenery is astounding.
3) Hi Fish! Love him. Love autumn.
Keep drivin' and enjoying the country. Stay safe, have fun.