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May 13, 2024, 11:20 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How NPR and Floodlight teamed up to uncover fossil fuel “news mirages” across the country

“It’s information. But it’s not news.”

In March, NPR’s David Folkenflik and Miranda Green of Floodlight co-published a story about The Richmond Standard, a local news site in the town of Richmond, California, that is wholly owned by Chevron. There are no full-time journalists on staff; a PR firm in San Francisco oversees the publication’s operations. It is, Folkenflik and Green said, not so much a news desert as a “news mirage”: “Stories are told — but with an agenda. Facts displeasing to Chevron are omitted; hard truths softened. The company is seeking to get its point of view across and to convey that it can be trusted.”

The story was the latest in a series of stories examining how utilities and fossil fuel interests manipulated local news and attacked public officials to get their way; previous reporting uncovered the ways power companies in Florida and Alabama funded news sites that attacked their critics and how politicians paid a local political outlet in Florida for favorable coverage.

The Richmond Standard, however, stands out for the way it is structured: This is not a story of an outlet being influenced by fossil fuel money, but of an outlet that was set up as a mouthpiece of the company outright. In Richmond, where local news is practically nonexistent — the city’s independent paper shut down a few years ago, though the people behind Berkeleyside and Oaklandside are planning to open a Richmond-focused outlet, Richmondside, this summer — that means it’s difficult for residents to understand just how the company that dominates their city is affecting their lives.

“We don’t know the full story, but we know that you shouldn’t breathe in the air or be outside for that matter,” one Richmond resident told Folkenflik and Green after a flaring incident at the Chevron refinery in the city filled the sky with black smoke. “It would be nice to have an actual news outlet that would actually go out there and figure it out themselves.”

I called Folkenflik and Green to talk about how their story came together, and how news mirages like the Richmond Standard work. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Neel Dhanesha: This story and series were the result of months of investigations. How did they get started?

Miranda Green: I had been working with my colleague Mario Alejandro Ariza on collaboration between Floodlight, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Guardian, looking at how two utility companies in the South were using ghost candidate campaigns. They were using this consulting firm to funnel money into these fake campaigns of [people] who had the same last names as the candidates who were already running, because the candidates that were running were for solar and for reducing emissions, things that would be headaches for the utilities.

In that reporting, we got our hands on a bunch of documents that were a starting point for us to dig into how utilities are funneling money toward political campaigns and individuals. As part of that, they were creating and funneling money into media organizations across the states of Alabama and Florida.

David’s interest was piqued, because he’s a media reporter. So he reached out to us…and I ended up pitching him on a partnership, saying, “You know, we actually have thousands of documents that we can go through here, let’s do something.”

David Folkenflik: Sometimes at NPR, what [we] do is amplify stories that others have broken, and that’s okay. [But] Miranda quite memorably said, “How would you like to break some news?”

Green: I think David’s response was, “That sounds like fun.”

Folkenflik: We did team up, and it took a long time, because it was complex. We didn’t have a clear chain of possession of the documents, so we had to do an extraordinary degree of authentication and verification. We had to figure out what things meant, how they fit together. We had to talk to sources in something like four different states — sometimes in person, sometimes by phone or WhatsApp or, you know, smoke signal and carrier pigeon. We had to figure out ways to authenticate [what we had]. It required an extraordinary degree of source cultivation and management, because this was sensitive stuff and there were lawsuits occurring and being threatened all the time, including, repeatedly, against us. So this was something where we wanted everything nailed down. It took months…But it came together, I think, in a rather splendid style.

Dhanesha: How did you come upon the story about Chevron funding The Richmond Standard in particular?

Green: I live in California, and I remembered being told years ago that Chevron owned a newspaper in Richmond. It was just something that stuck in the back of my head. Then, as I was doing the Alabama Power story that came out in January, I was listening to their head of PR talk about why they decided to launch the Alabama news center and he says, basically, “Chevron’s doing it in Richmond, and we want the same thing. We want the same avenue to tell our own stories.”

To me, that was a sign that they were taking cues from the Standard. The industry must think of this as a gold star standard if they’re putting their own money into doing this. This was the fossil fuel industry, as opposed to a utility company, so they’re not the same industry, but they have similar goals.

Folkenflik: I mean, they’re very cheek by jowl as industries go. And we found they did this in the Permian Basin of Texas, in New Mexico, and also in Ecuador in a slightly different way — that was actually for a longer term.

Dhanesha: Could you walk me through what the reporting process was like? Did you go to Richmond together and report side by side every step of the way?

Green: Yeah, it was really collaborative. Before we even stepped foot in Richmond, I had connected with a team of Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism students who worked for Richmond Confidential, which is one of the few online newspaper resources for Richmond residents. It’s run out of the graduate school. A lot of residents we talked to when we were in Richmond pointed to it as a great news source.

We worked with three different reporters who did some local digging from Berkeley into what Chevron had done in Richmond in the last 10 years, and that gave us a really good primer. Some of them helped us find connections to the Ecuador sites, some of them did more digging in interviews in the Permian Basin. [We learned] there were locals on the ground who felt…there was a lot of new stuff there to cover.

David and I flew out and spent five-ish days in the area interviewing people. We had meetings with a local city council member and a former mayor, we had meetings with environmental justice advocates, we walked around and talked to locals at restaurants and at the Rosie the Riveter national park, because we thought that that was really interesting historical context for the area. We got a tour of the Iron Triangle, which is where three train tracks intersect, and saw the local elementary schools and the kids playing soccer right next to the tracks. We also went to what was dubbed a “nature park” that was right next to a landfill that was abutting the Chevron refinery.

Folkenflik: The nature park had extraordinary wildlife. The birds were amazing. But you are also in full view of all these smokestacks and the huge storage tanks. It’s very psychically and visually dislocating to sort of combine those two things.

Green: It was really important to both David and me to be up there ourselves, and to make sure that we understood what it was like to live there. It’s so close to San Francisco — it’s on the BART line just north of Berkeley — but Richmond is kind of just not talked about. The refinery area is so hidden from view, it’s tucked away in this estuary behind a hill. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge from the top of the hill, but you can’t see the refinery. And they had painted all of the tanks [of oil, petroleum, and unrefined gas] terracotta red, so if you don’t know better it almost looks like the hills of Tuscany.

Dhanesha: How does The Richmond Standard work, exactly? You mention a San Francisco PR firm in your story, and I got the impression that they had some people who are local.

Folkenflik: There’s not a conventional newsroom that we’re aware of. Instead, it’s run by Singer and Associates, which is a public relations firm for the well-heeled corporate set in San Francisco. And they have hired a couple of folks as sort of permanent part-timers and freelancers who write for the site, who were previously journalists.

What was interesting to me, although I don’t know that I can derive pure correlation/causation, was that after we started reaching out in, I would say, late February —  after we’d already been doing some reporting — the pace of coverage posted to the site started to pick up. Previously the home page had some videos that had been there for a couple years, from almost the George Floyd era. It seemed as though suddenly we started to see more and more recent stuff.

A person who had written there previously said that, basically, the idea was to write nothing that made Chevron look bad, and to pick a certain number of stories that made Chevron look good, and make people feel good about the town. And the adjacency of these things together meant that you would have a warmer feeling about Chevron.

It’s a vehicle to get out whatever message they want, and certainly in times of crisis or controversy, they’re massaging the news. But also the notion is “I can feel good about them, because they are there as a resource that is going to tell me about street closings; they’re going to tell me about festivals or food or marching bands.” And you know what, there aren’t a whole lot of [other] sites that do that.

Dhanesha: Are they writing about school board meetings and the like?

Green: If you look at the coverage, it’s pretty barebones. I mean, yes, they will cover the new restaurant that opened in town, and they might interview a person, or they will talk about how the library is hosting a book reading or something like that. So there’s a lot of feel-good content in there. They will post about Chevron job days, and they will post things like “come and tour our facilities.”

That is pretty much the extent to which [Chevron] talks about themselves. Unless there’s a big event where they’re in the news, sometimes they don’t report on themselves at all. But if there is a big event, they will write about it in a way that is beneficial to them.

The month before we came and visited, there was a huge settlement in the air district, the largest settlement that the air district has ever had with an emitter. Chevron had been fighting it with another fossil fuel company for many, many years. And they finally just gave up and said, “Okay, we’ll pay the fine.”

It was a $20 million dollar fine, and in addition to that, they would have to change a lot of their practices and pay hundreds of millions of dollars to make sure that they weren’t still emitting. It was written about [in other places] everywhere as the largest fine ever and so on. But Chevron’s headline didn’t include the word “fine,” did not mention it was a lawsuit. They couched it as “this is something we’re doing to make sure that we can continue to get Bay Area residents and Richmond residents energy,” as if it was something that they had offered.

Dhanesha: I thought that was a striking example of their power to control the narrative in Richmond.

Green: That’s the power of spin, right? We get asked, “Well, how is that different from PR? How do you qualify what journalism is?”

I talked to a Richmond resident who gave me a really poignant answer. She said “It’s information. But it’s not news.”

Dhanesha: It’s only a website, right? Not a print paper?

Green: It’s not a paper, but we did notice that some of its articles were picked up in local papers. That is something that we’ve seen happen across the board. They license their stories out for others to use, so if you’re reading your paper and it’s one of many articles [sitting next to] a Reuters article, or an AP article, you have no reason to not trust its authenticity or question where it’s coming from.

Dhanesha: I was struck by the fact that the site says it’s funded by Chevron on its homepage. It seems to immediately belie the point of what they’re trying to do, but maybe they don’t care too much.

Green: It kind of comes down to what your journalistic ethics are. I think they feel like if they have it somewhere on the site, they’re being honest, they’re not hiding, because they’ve put it on the homepage.

And that’s true, that’s good standard procedure, you should be honest and transparent. But we also know that in practice, most people don’t get their news from going to websites anymore. They get it from links that are shared to them, or [via] word of mouth. And if you clicked on any of these articles, nowhere on the article does it say “news from Chevron.” It will say the name of a person, and if you dig you’ll realize [the person] is actually part of the PR company, Singer, and not a reporter. So the misinformation continues to be part of the system.

Dhanesha: Do you think it’s working? It seems you talked to a lot of people who were skeptical of what The Richmond Standard was putting out.

Folkenflik: I think we might have different takes. We talked to a former mayor about this, and he said “You know, we all know what it is, it’s fine.” When he was mayor, he was always trying to get more money from Chevron to help the city operate. People rely on Chevron dollars throughout the city — not just the people who work for Chevron, but also the restaurants and other businesses. So this is one way Chevron dollars are kind of helping the city.

But they have a lot of soft power that way. Readers only have so much time in [their] day, and not everybody is taking a graduate seminar in holding Chevron responsible. Maybe the first story they come across says “Chevron has reached an agreement to help further the city’s desire for clean air,” as opposed to “Chevron and the city have joined with regional regulators to resolve longstanding lawsuits over pollution.”

It’s not that it’s untrue. It’s that the context, the framing, the omissions add up to presenting a very different sense of what Chevron’s actually doing. The idea that it’s modernizing is true! But it’s modernizing in the face of an onslaught of regulators taking seriously the application of violation of law.

Green: I think the question of whether it’s working well depends on how they’re measuring success. I think, for them, success is that their name is out there in another way. There’s another product they have that’s not just related to the refinery in the neighborhood around the refinery, and it has a positive connection to them. They are filling a service and a need within the community. So from their perspective, they are only bringing value. And, you know, people can pick and choose what they want to read, but people are reading it. We have talked to locals who said that’s where they got their news from. It is a known news site, it’s prominent, it’s a brand and a name that they know, and they associate it with Chevron in a mostly positive way.

Photo by Robin Sommer via Unsplash.

Neel Dhanesha is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach Neel via email (neel_dhanesha@harvard.edu), Twitter (@neel_dhan), or Signal (@neel.58).
POSTED     May 13, 2024, 11:20 a.m.
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