An investigative research team whose controversial climate reports were funded by anti-oil and gas interests failed to provide adequate disclosure of the donations, according to a report out this afternoon by the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). Additionally, an Energy In Depth review of online records suggests the excuse provided by the project’s editor for not disclosing the information properly is, in fact, entirely inaccurate.
The CJR report, part of the magazine’s role as a media watchdog, could raise additional ethical questions about funding sources for non-profit organizations that produce what many would otherwise see as objective reporting.
The researchers under scrutiny are affiliated with the Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship at Columbia University, which recently produced two reports claiming an American energy company had helped advance mainstream climate science, but allegedly later “poured millions into a campaign that questioned climate change.” Both reports were published by the Los Angeles Times in October, and later even helped spark a push by state government officials to investigate energy companies’ opinions on climate change.
An Energy In Depth review of online records from late last month showed that the reports had been financed by a number of large foundations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, that oppose and actively work to stop oil and natural gas development. After EID’s report, the Los Angeles Times quietly updated one of the stories to disclose that information to its readers.
A review of archived pages conducted earlier this week by the Daily Caller, a conservative online outlet, also discovered that the Columbia fellowship program that produced the reports had similarly not disclosed funding from anti-fossil fuel interests when the stories were initially published. Columbia later updated its website to note that it had taken money from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Energy Foundation, and other organizations that also finance national campaigns in opposition to conventional energy development.
In the wake of these developments, and against the backdrop of additional attention being directed back to the research team’s previously undisclosed financial supporters, the Columbia Journalism Review weighed in today with a critical take on the alleged lack of transparency.
In describing how several institutions are “often drawing on funds from outside groups” to support their journalistic research projects, the CJR highlights the legitimate questions regarding who those funders actually are:
“But the practice also raises questions of balance in what subjects get reported, as well as appropriate disclosure of the outside funders and their political leanings. In the case of Columbia, The Energy and Environmental Reporting Project is funded in part by a group of philanthropic organizations, at least one with a clear advocacy bent on the issue. The names of the funders were not listed on the two articles when they were published by the Los Angeles Times, though they were later added online.” (emphasis added)
Bill Keller, editor in chief of the Marshall Project, told CJR that when it comes to nonprofit news, “most organized funders are geared for advocacy.” CJR adds that these organizations “often have a topical focus, and grants for subject-specific coverage inherently influence what journalism reaches the public.”
Not surprisingly, another non-profit news organization, InsideClimate News (ICN), has come under fire for its objectivity. ICN regularly cites environmental activist groups in its reports, without disclosing in the story that both ICN and the groups cited are funded by the same foundations. Energy In Depth has previously explored how funders for InsideClimate News, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, also bankroll environmental advocacy groups like 350.org, the Sierra Club, and Earthworks.
As for the Columbia team, CJR observes that the Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship is “supported by six outside groups,” including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which, according to CJR, “has taken a particularly strong stance against fossil fuels.”
Why the Lack of Disclosure?
The CJR report explains that “there is arguably some harm in not disclosing those funders to readers,” adding that the Los Angeles Times made “no explicit mention of the philanthropic organizations providing financial support” for the articles it published. “After that complaint was made public this week,” according to CJR, “the Times appended the relevant information to the work online.”
A spokesperson for the Times defended its decision not to initially disclose, telling CJR that “a list of the project’s funders has been available on the project’s website,” and that the Times “clearly noted that the reporting was done by the Columbia University’s Energy and Environment Reporting Project.”
CJR suggests that’s hardly a credible excuse, observing that it’s “questionable, though, whether very many readers would have taken the time to visit the Columbia project’s web page to examine its funders.”
Earlier this week, the Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Steve Coll, also defended his research team’s use of anti-oil and gas money, claiming that it has always been fully disclosed. In response to a letter questioning the objectivity of the Columbia team’s reports, based in part on the funding it received from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Coll wrote:
“Your letter focuses on the fact that the project is supported in part by grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. This is true, and is prominently disclosed on the Project’s website, as are the names of the other significant financial supporters of the Project, apart from the Graduate School of Journalism itself.”
Archival records of the Columbia website released yesterday, however, showed that the funding sources were not disclosed when the reports were published. As CJR points out, “there was no such disclosure of funding on Columbia’s website when both stories ran, the first on Oct. 9 and the second on Oct. 23.”
But an even more damning revelation came from Columbia’s research team, specifically Susanne Rust, the project’s editor, who defended the decision not to disclose funding until nearly a month after the first story was published.
“The investigative editor on the project, Susanne Rust, offered this explanation: ‘[The project] didn’t even have a website until Oct. 9 because we were operating in stealth mode,’ Rust says. ‘When the first story came out, we realized we needed one. Probably a couple weeks later, [school administrators] said it’d be good to get the funders on there as well. They finally got up on Nov. 6.’
“Rust pegs the long delay to bureaucratic inertia. As a courtesy after publication, the school notified funders that their support would be made public. ‘Throughout the reporting,’ Rust adds, ‘whenever anyone would ask how this was funded, there was full disclosure.’”
But online records suggest that Rust’s statement indicating the Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship “didn’t even have a website until Oct. 9” is not true. Based on an internet archive review by Energy In Depth, the project had a website at least a month earlier than Rust claimed. Here is how the Fellowship’s page appeared on September 8, 2015:
That page, which also provided bios for the authors of the stories that were later published by the Los Angeles Times, did not list the Rockefeller Brothers Fund or any of the other funders.