New York City sued big oil companies. We’ve got questions.
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New York City sued big oil companies. We’ve got questions.

January 11, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

New York City sues five oil companies alleging contributions to climate change

On Wednesday, New York City announced a lawsuit against oil companies BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell. The suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, says “the City seeks to shift the costs of protecting the City from climate change impacts back onto the companies that have done nearly all they could to create this existential threat.” The city’s Mayor Bill de Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer also announced on Wednesday the city has plans to divest $5 billion in fossil fuel investments within five years, from five pension funds valued at $189 billion.

Read the full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • When reporting on a legal case, should the media take sides?
  • The coverage of New York City’s lawsuit against five oil companies was biased towards the plaintiff.
  • See how the media’s favoring one perspective over another affects our understanding of the story, and possibly due process.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Immediate blowback

    Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio received immediate blowback from some of the companies, while winning praise from environmentalists and others. (AP)

  • Lead the assault

    New York City is seeking to lead the assault on both climate change and the Trump administration with a plan to divest $5bn from fossil fuels and sue the world’s most powerful oil companies over their contribution to dangerous global warming. (The Guardian)

  • Enter the fray

    Three of the companies shot back against the mayor’s accusations, while two others — ConocoPhillips and BP — declined to enter the fray. (AP)

  • Focused heavily

    In the wake of the Paris agreement to limit global warming and weather events such as superstorm Sandy, governments globally have focused heavily on tackling climate change. (Financial Times)

  • Under scrutiny

    The lawsuit, filed to federal court in New York on Tuesday night, adds to the pressure on the fossil fuel companies, which are already under scrutiny from investors about the impact of climate policies on their future earnings. (Financial Times)

  • Looming

    Court documents state that New York has suffered from flooding and erosion due to climate change and because of looming future threats it is seeking to “shift the costs of protecting the city from climate change impacts back on to the companies that have done nearly all they could to create this existential threat”. (The Guardian)

  • Clout

    De Blasio and the city comptroller, Scott Stringer, have come under pressure for several years from activists to rid New York’s pension funds of any link to fossil fuels, with some environmentalists claiming the city has been too slow to use its clout to tackle climate change. (The Guardian)

  • Badly rattled

    New York was badly rattled by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and faces costs escalating into the tens of billions of dollars in order to protect low-lying areas such as lower Manhattan and the area around JFK airport from being inundated by further severe storms fueled by rising sea levels and atmospheric warming. (The Guardian)

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.

Fiction
or
Fact

The Guardian

“New York City is seeking to lead the assault on both climate change and the Trump administration with a plan to divest $5bn from fossil fuels and sue the world’s most powerful oil companies over their contribution to dangerous global warming.”

New York City plans to divest $5 billion from fossil fuels and has sued five oil companies over their alleged contributions to climate change. New York City’s mayor said in announcing the suit, “We will honor the Paris Agreement regardless of the actions of our national government.”

The Guardian

“New York was badly rattled by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 …”

New York City reported 43 deaths and $19 billion in damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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