Highlighting Media Matters research, Al Jazeera calls out “gaping hole” in media coverage of climate change

Segment notes failure of broadcast TV news to cover climate change as an issue during 2016 election

“Journalists and news outlets they work for consistently fall short on what may be the biggest story of them all: the future viability of the planet,” said Richard Gizbert, host of The Listening Post, Al Jazeera's media critique and analysis program, in a recent segment.

The segment highlights Media Mattersfinding that the major broadcast TV nightly news shows and Sunday talk shows did not air a single segment about how the presidential election could affect climate policy or the trajectory of climate change. Altogether during 2016, the amount of time broadcast TV news spent covering climate change was down 66 percent compared to 2015, as Media Matters reported in its most recent annual study of climate coverage.

Media paid substantial attention to the signing of the Paris climate agreement in December 2015, and there was a spike in coverage when President Donald Trump announced his intention to pull the U.S. out of the accord in June 2017, but there was very little coverage of the agreement in the intervening year and a half by U.S. media, as Lisa Hymas, director of Media Matters' climate program, pointed out in the segment.

The Listening Post report also made the point that media should cover how disasters like hurricanes are made worse by climate change, but noted that outlets frequently shy away from the story. In recent months, Media Matters documented that cable and broadcast news networks and Sunday political shows too often failed to mention climate change during coverage of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

The segment went on to address shortcomings in coverage of environmental justice issues and campaigns, citing as an example the late and limited mainstream media attention to the movement opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. Last year, Media Matters drew attention to the media's severe undercoverage of the movement, part of a broader trend of media ignoring activists. And as Hymas pointed out in the segment, when mainstream media outlets did cover the pipeline resistance, they largely failed to report on the links between that struggle and the fight against climate change. 

In addition to Hymas, the segment, which was reported by Listening Post producer Will Yong, also featured Guardian environment writer Martin Lukacs, University of Lancaster researcher Nicholas Beuret, journalist and filmmaker Jenni Monet, and journalist Amantha Perera.

RICHARD GIZBERT (HOST): When climate change makes it onto the news agenda -- as it has this week with the COP23 conference in Germany or alongside coverage of extreme weather events -- it seldom stays there. Once the storms or the conferences pass, the media move on. We're focusing on the climate change story this week and the coverage it does not get.


The Listening Post's Will Yong [reports] on how journalists and news outlets they work for consistently fall short on what may be the biggest story of them all: the future viability of the planet.


WILL YONG: The [Paris] agreement, though vague and nonbinding, did at least win back the headlines. …

The International Collective on Environment, Culture and Politics tracks climate change coverage in media around the globe. Media interest spiked when Barack Obama attended the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, but then climate change all but disappeared from view until Paris.


Earlier this year, headline-grabber-in-chief Donald Trump put climate change back in the news when he decided to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement. Media Matters for America watches U.S. mainstream media for their climate coverage. Their most telling finding is that aside from when world leaders are raising or dashing hopes, most of the time there's simply nothing to see.

LISA HYMAS: In June of this year, there was a big burst of coverage when Trump announced that he was going to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, and in the year and a half in between [the Paris signing and Trump's announcement], there was almost no coverage [of the agreement] whatsoever in the U.S. media.

During the presidential election campaign, there was not a single segment [on broadcast TV news programs] about how the election would affect climate change. That was a huge miss by the media. Donald Trump said more than once that he intended to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement, but the [broadcast] media did not cover that.


MARTIN LUKACS: The tricky part about climate journalism is that often the climate change impact happens in a slow motion. … On the other hand, sometimes climate change plays out in shocks.


DAVID MUIR (ABC ANCHOR): That monster hurricane [Irma], the strongest ever on record in the Atlantic Ocean.


LUKACS: So it's precisely in those moments of climate shocks that we need the media to be honest and clear about how climate change is a factor. But it's often in those moments that they most shy away from talking about it.


NICHOLAS BEURET: One of the things we see in press reports on climate change is the idea that there's some sort of magical technology that can fix things for us, or maybe the market will do it. It's kind of a faith in something beyond humanity to solve the problem that we've created.  

HYMAS: The barriers to combatting climate change are not technological, they are political. And sometimes this fixation that scientists are going to come up with some new technology that is going to be a magic bullet distracts us from the action that we need to be taking right now.


YONG: Environmentalists recognize indigenous struggle as a crucial front line in the fight against climate change, but the media seldom see them as more than a side note. Late last year, the mainstream media did finally descend on North Dakota to report on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. But journalists only showed up in big numbers when water protectors were subjected to violence that provided the kind of live, telegenic flash point that most climate change stories lack.


HYMAS: Dave Archambault is a tribal leader for the Standing Rock Sioux, the tribe that really instigated this resistance movement, and he has spoken very eloquently about concern about climate change and how that intersects with the tribe's concern about their water quality and tribal sovereignty. … But those arguments very rarely made it into media discussions of the Dakota Access Pipeline.


JENNI MONET: Is it going to take bottom-up voices all the time to tell these environmental justice issues, or is it now the onus on journalists to talk about climate justice?

YONG: Covering climate change means communicating urgency without killing off hope, looking beyond elite politics to where grass-roots movements are already taking action, identifying the actors and the system that got us here in the first place. But to represent climate justice requires one more crucial step: to identify and give voice to the victims who are feeling climate impacts, not in the future, but here and now.

BEURET: Treating climate change as a question of environmental justice means starting from its impact on people rather than from abstract modeling or doomsday scenarios. The best of environmental journalism takes what are often private experiences of deprivation, of injustice, and enables people to sort of connect the dots, to create a shared experience around which they can organize themselves.

AMANTHA PERERA: The environment impacts politics, the social fabric, economics, everything. Communities that are finding it hard to feed their families, people moving out of their villages and going into towns -- it's important to report on these vulnerabilities because then you see how much of an impact climate change is having before the impact becomes huge. So it's the journalists who have to bring all these facets together and report this complex story but in a way that everybody understands.