New York City sued big oil companies. We’ve got questions. | The Knife Media

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(The Knife Media) Media coverage can affect legal proceedings by introducing bias, often before a case has even gone to court. If the justice system is a tool to discover the truth while protecting the presumption of innocence, then ideally reporting would remain impartial.

That wasn’t what we found in the coverage of New York City’s lawsuit against five big oil companies, and the city’s announcement of plans to divest up to $5 billion in fossil fuel investments. We analyzed four articles on the matter, which supported a similar perspective to the one alleged in the suit. Here’s the gist of it, as expressed by the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio.

The City of New York is taking on these five giants because they are the central actors, they are the first ones responsible for this crisis, and they should not get away with it anymore … As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.

What’s the bias? That oil companies are to blame for climate change (well, their “greed” actually), and that climate change will cause New York City to incur greater costs in the future. 

There may be data supporting this position, and it may be in the court documents, but it’s not in these articles. A well-reported news article would include them. 

The outlets lost impartiality by favoring the above bias, and omitting data or questions that might provide a fuller picture. For instance, The Guardian’s subhead included part of de Blasio’s quote above. The outlet then quoted him blaming the companies again, saying they “intentionally misled the public to protect their profits,” and cited other opinions in support of the suit. Yet the article didn’t include any of the defendants’ responses to the lawsuit, which further suggests the city is right.

If news outlets don’t have access to the specifics behind a lawsuit, they can raise questions that might inspire a more objective approach to the matter. For example:

  • What specific rights or regulations did these oil companies allegedly violate?
  • What data and methods did the city use to determine the extent to which these companies contributed to climate change? What were the limitations in data and methods? (In science, there always are.)
  • How did the city determine the companies’ supposed blame, in comparison to the consumers they served, including the private sector, industry and government? Do consumers share in this responsibility and, if so, to what extent?
  • The Guardian wrote that “because of looming future threats,” the suit seeks to protect the city. What precedents exist entitling a party to payments on damages that haven’t occurred? Did the city propose remedies to the companies (assuming they’re found guilty and pay) if those damages don’t materialize?

Slanted or one-sided news coverage can limit the way we approach information, because it seems we’re getting the whole picture, but we’re not. When slant is coupled with sensitive subjects, such as climate change, the effect can compound, as our personal beliefs or sensitivities may get in the way of objectivity. In both cases, a remedy is precise data and objective reporting.


Written by Ivy Nevares

Edited by Ivy NevaresJens Erik Gould and Rosa Laura Junco

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