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The challenge of oil companies as NPR sponsors

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

A long-standing practice in journalism is trying to avoid jarring juxtapositions between ads and news stories. For example, historically, advertisements for airlines were moved away from stories about plane crashes. At NPR, oil and gas company sponsorships are kept away from stories about climate change.

At least, they are supposed to be. Two audience members alerted us to a slip in this practice. We investigated to find out how that happened.

There's a deeper issue here about how much longer NPR and other public media will accept sponsorship money from oil companies. As the pressure increases to address the myriad threats posed by a warming planet, the number of news stories will increase as well. That raises the question of whether it will be possible or practical for NPR to keep oil company sponsorships away from news stories about climate change.

After all, these long-standing arrangements are made with both the audience and the company behind the ad in mind. It's incongruous for the news consumer to see a story about the problems posed by climate change next to a promotion for a company whose primary activity is extracting, refining and selling fossil fuels, one of the drivers of climate change.

But it's also bad for the oil company, because the money they spend to bolster their brand is wasted when their logo or message is next to a story about the harm caused by climate change.

Previous NPR public editors have addressed this question. They have generally supported NPR's position of not making moral judgments about companies and instead vetting the message the sponsor wants to share. But in this most recent case, there was no message from the sponsor. The ads in question were house ads promoting NPR's daily news podcast Up First, which is sponsored by ExxonMobil and therefore has its logo placed in the ad.

Companies that purchase these types of sponsorships seek something called a "halo effect." They are hoping to borrow some of the goodwill that audiences have toward NPR by sponsoring NPR's work.

We understand and support NPR's commitment to screening messages for appropriateness, rather than companies. After all, there are so many industries that one could judge as objectionable. But when there is no message, just a logo, NPR needs a process for seeing the sponsorship through the eyes of the news consumer.

Because ExxonMobil is an established NPR sponsor, its logo is familiar on NPR's site and doesn't immediately raise the perception that a conflict of interest might exist. Until those adjacent stories are about climate change. Read on to see what we learned.

We also spotlight a story about a mother's love and concern for her daughter, who is addicted to opioids.


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Oil company sponsorships and climate change stories

Rick Hobson wrote on Dec. 3: I am wondering about the conflict between NPR's great online coverage of climate change issues and ads from Exxon accompanying it? It seems like a conflict of interest.

Jakki Mohr wrote on Nov. 29: I am beyond disappointed to see ExxonMobil sponsorship ads for NPR's Daily News Podcast plastered all over www.npr.org this morning. The ads are prominently displayed on nearly every story related to climate change. I expect hypocrisy from ExxonMobil, given how widely known their strategies are to obfuscate and downplay their role in climate change. However, for NPR to take dirty sponsorship dollars is inexcusable. I expect a higher standard of ethics. I've posted a sampling of these ads in the dropbox link above. I would appreciate the courtesy of a reply. Thank you.

We have received similar comments in the past from audience members concerned about oil and gas companies being NPR sponsors and having ads on NPR. In the aforementioned Dropbox link, the audience member sent several images showing ads for the Up First podcast right next to and embedded in climate-related stories. On each ad is the line "supported by ExxonMobil," featuring the company's logo.

The Up First advertisement with the ExxonMobil sponsorship accompanied stories about climate funding, global talks to cut plastic waste, and impacts the U.S. will experiencefrom a certain level of global warming. And the story on plastic waste even included a quote from an ExxonMobil spokesperson.

NPR sponsorships are sold by National Public Media, a full-service corporate sponsorship organization that is jointly owned by NPR, PBS and GBH. In an email, standards editor Tony Cavin pointed us to a noticehe said is sent to all potential sponsors. The note reads: "All NPR funding sources, including corporate sponsors, are considered under the 'access' principle, which means that NPR has no list of sources from which funding will not be accepted. However, potential conflict of interest and problems of listener misperception, confusion, or similar reason regarding the funder's role and/or influence on programming will be considered in accepting or rejecting underwriting."

"Because the ads the listener flagged are for Up First with an ExxonMobil lead sponsor tag, they did not initially get flagged as oil company ads (because they were essentially Up First promos)," Cavin said. "Once the issue was brought to NPR's attention, they were flagged as ads that shouldn't be adjacent to stories about climate and were moved."

As with other newsrooms, editorial work is separate from ads and sponsorships at NPR. And NPR journalists seem keenly aware of this, too. In a December story on the oil industry embracing terms like 'lower carbon,' reporter Camila Domonoske noted in the audio that ExxonMobil is an NPR sponsor and referenced a specific ad from the company on NPR.

The digital version of the same story included this disclosure, "ExxonMobil, which is also a sponsor of NPR, has promos on NPR programming that tout carbon capture. (NPR has strict separations between the news division and its sponsorship unit. When asked about these sponsorships, an NPR spokesperson noted that 'NPR has no list of sources from which funding will be refused. However, conflicts of interest or similar concerns are considered.')"

We agree that it is jarring to see ads supported by ExxonMobil or similar companies beside stories about climate and environmental issues, and are glad to see that this particular one was noted as a conflict and moved. While sponsorships help sustain NPR's journalism, they should be handled carefully. And, most importantly, consideration must be given to the audience's experience to avoid clashes like this. — Amaris Castillo


The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

A mother's journey to keep her daughter alive

Morning Edition recently aired a meaningful, personal segmentabout a mother with a mission to keep her daughter, who is addicted to opioids, alive. Through interviews with the mother, Renae, and her daughter, Brooke, WBUR reporter Martha Bebinger led listeners through a story about the far reaches of a parent's love and harm reduction for drug use. "The swirl of emotions that I had was just insane. Am I enabling?" Renae said. The digital version of the story, featuring original art by NPR illustrator LA Johnson, included more details about Renae's transformation from an anxious mother to an overdose prevention advocate. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske Wood, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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