Solutions to climate change get short shrift on broadcast TV news

Solutions to climate change get short shrift on broadcast TV news

Blog ››› ››› TED MACDONALD


Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Broadcast TV news typically does a poor job of covering climate change, but it does an even worse job of covering potential solutions to climate change and actions being taken to combat or prepare for the crisis. In 2017 and 2018, the major broadcast networks' nightly news and Sunday morning programs mentioned solutions and actions to address climate change in less than 19 percent of their climate coverage. This is a serious shortcoming, as research indicates that media coverage of solutions to climate change leads citizens to become more engaged and inclined to push for action.

Broadcast networks covered solutions and responses to climate change in less than 19 percent of climate-related segments

In 2017 and 2018, corporate broadcast networks' major news programs mentioned solutions or climate action in less than a fifth of their total climate coverage. From January 1, 2017, to December 31, 2018, nightly news programs and Sunday morning shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 187 segments that covered climate change. Only 35 of those segments, or just under 19 percent, discussed potential solutions or efforts to address climate change.

Media Matters analyzed segments on the three big networks' half-hour-long nightly news programs -- ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News -- and their hour-long Sunday morning news programs -- ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press.

The majority of broadcast networks’ coverage of climate solutions came in response to Trump administration actions. On the three major networks' news programs, President Donald Trump drove more than half of the solutions-related climate coverage. Twenty out of the 35 segments that mentioned solutions to climate change did so in response to statements or actions from Trump or his administration, including his announcement about withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and his rollbacks of climate regulations.

This finding is in line with previous research by Media Matters and others that found much media coverage of climate change in the last two years has been centered around Trump.

Most solutions segments mentioned clean technology and/or climate action taken by cities, states, and other countries. Sixty-three percent of the segments on ABC, CBS, and NBC that addressed solutions made mention of the fact that cities, states, businesses, or countries other than the U.S. are continuing efforts to meet the goals of the Paris agreement or otherwise fighting climate change. Sixty percent mentioned the growth or promise of clean technology such as renewable energy. Many segments mentioned both types of solutions, as well as noting the Trump administration's actions.

For example, CBS Evening News on November 12, 2017, covered the Trump administration’s efforts to promote fossil fuels at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany. The segment also reported that many U.S. states and other entities are taking action on their own to uphold the Paris accord goals despite Trump's intention to pull the U.S. out of the agreement, and noted that wind and solar are spreading quickly and becoming cheaper than fossil fuels.

A number of the three networks' segments touched on similar themes but in much less depth, giving only glancing mention to city or state action or to clean tech.

One of the rare solutions segments that gave concentrated attention to a particular clean technology aired on NBC Nightly News on June 18, 2017, and chronicled a visit to a commercial facility in Switzerland that captures carbon dioxide.

NBC’s Meet the Press aired the longest, most in-depth segment on climate solutions. The most amount of time devoted to discussing climate solutions in a single segment came on the December 30, 2018, episode of NBC’s Meet the Press -- the first-ever episode of a Sunday show entirely focused on climate change. It included an eight-minute roundtable discussion about different ways to address climate change, including carbon taxes and lawsuits against fossil fuel companies. Host Chuck Todd led the discussion with NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel, then-Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), and three other experts.

That same episode of Meet the Press also addressed solutions and climate action during Todd's opening segment and during interviews with outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I). Overall, this Meet the Press episode included four solutions segments -- 11 percent of the total number of solutions segments for 2017 and 2018. Without this one episode, coverage of climate action and solutions would have been even more dismal.

All three major nightly news shows covered coral restoration as a way to combat damage done by climate change. ABC, CBS, and NBC ran few solutions segments that did not mention Trump, but all three networks' nightly news shows covered one particularly telegenic solution that had nothing to do with the president: scientists' efforts to restore coral reefs that have been severely damaged by warming of the oceans. In fact, CBS covered it twice. ABC's World News Tonight was the first with a segment that aired on June 1, 2017, about the cultivation in Hawaii of supercoral that can withstand global warming. CBS Evening News then ran segments on two consecutive nights, July 2 and 3, 2017, about coral restoration efforts off the coast of Florida. And on October 6, 2018, NBC Nightly News aired its own segment on marine biologists in Florida who are "growing corals resistant to climate change."

PBS demonstrates how to do good coverage of climate action and solutions

PBS has long outperformed the corporate broadcast networks on climate change coverage in general, and the same trend holds with coverage of climate solutions. In 2017 and 2018, PBS NewsHour, an hour-long program that airs on weeknights, discussed actions and responses to climate change in 33 segments. In contrast to the corporate networks whose solutions-related coverage focused largely on responses to the Trump administration, PBS’ solutions coverage was far more varied and in-depth, including segments on local climate action and adapting to climate-fueled extreme weather events.

One good example of climate solutions coverage came on the May 30, 2018, edition of PBS NewsHour. The segment discussed a Virginia environmental organization’s efforts to educate children about rising sea levels caused by climate change and how to deal with them.

Another strong solutions-focused segment aired during the December 17, 2018, episode of PBS NewsHour. It featured climate expert Nat Keohane of the Environmental Defense Fund discussing the recent U.N. climate talks in Poland, what steps countries are taking to implement the Paris climate agreement, and positive developments in the renewable energy sector.

PBS also has a special series that regularly reports on climate solutions: Its Peril and Promise segments focus on "stories of exciting new frontiers of scientific innovation in resilience, mitigation, and clean energy.

Major newspapers also fail to adequately cover climate solutions

A report by the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen found that the top newspapers in the U.S. also fall short on covering climate solutions. The group analyzed coverage of climate change in general in nine major papers in 2017 and then determined how many of the stories mentioning climate change also included variations of the words “solve,” "solution," or "mitigation." Using this more narrow definition of solutions coverage, it found that just 7 percent of climate articles in the major papers met the bar.

Research suggests that media coverage of climate solutions can lead to more engagement from the public and less apathy

A 2015 study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that media coverage of climate change can either lead citizens to “climate cynicism” or "help build more positive public engagement." When the media focus on political failures to address climate change, those stories can lead to public apathy and frustration. However, when media focus on “everyday heroes” who "take initiative or leadership to advance political action," those stories can have a more positive effect. Focus group participants who read solutions-focused stories demonstrated "much greater enthusiasm and optimism for political engagement." Study co-author Shane Gunster, a professor at Simon Fraser University, told Media Matters in 2015, "There is a strong desire for a different kind of news about climate change, which provides people with inspiring and compelling stories about how others just like them are becoming active and engaged in climate politics."

Elizabeth Arnold, an environmental journalist and journalism professor at the University of Alaska, studied the role of the media in creating public disengagement on climate change and wrote a paper in 2018 for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center that makes the case for more coverage of solutions to climate-related problems. The premise of her paper was that “repetition of a narrow narrative that focuses exclusively on the impacts of climate change leaves the public with an overall sense of powerlessness.” She argued:

If the role of the journalist is to seek the truth and report it, so that citizens will be informed and effective, reporting just the doom and gloom about climate change is insufficient. Calling attention to the impacts of climate change is essential if you are a journalist covering climate change. But if how people are responding, individually and collectively, is framed out, the whole story is not being told.

Arnold quoted David Bornstein, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network:

When too many people are aware of a problem but they don’t have a sense of what can be done, it leads them to opt out, tune out, and that’s bad for democracy. By showing that something is working in one place, it takes away the excuses for failure elsewhere, and increases the pressure on public officials.

Arnold's paper also quoted Lauren Feldman of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, who suggested that climate journalism take some lessons from public health journalism:

I think there is a model in public health. You tell a story about a crisis or a disease and you tell people what they can do to avert that crisis. A very similar approach can and should be taken with climate change. Here is a threat and here are some steps that you as an individual can take, and here is what the government is doing or and here is what industry is doing.

In 2019 and beyond, broadcast TV networks need to do a better job of reporting on climate change solutions

As New York Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote in a year-end piece, "The story of 2018 was climate change." He argued that people should stop being "distracted by lesser matters" because "nothing else measures up to the rising toll and enormous dangers of climate change." Last year's devastating extreme weather and dire climate change reports brought that fact home. Yet mainstream media in 2018 failed to cover climate change with the increasing attention that it needs, and as this research shows, its coverage of climate solutions was even worse.

In 2019 and beyond, broadcast TV news and the rest of the media must do a better job of telling the complete story of perhaps the greatest existential crisis of our time -- not just reporting on the doom and gloom of climate change, but also including the stories of hope and action that can galvanize the public to address climate change. The Washington Post kicked off the year the right way with a package explaining 11 policy solutions to combat climate change. We'd like to see a lot more stories like that.

Kevin Kalhoefer contributed research to this report. Chart by Melissa Joskow.  

Methodology

Media Matters analyzed coverage from January 1, 2017, to December 31, 2018, on nightly news shows -- ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour -- and Sunday morning news shows -- ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press. To identify segments that discussed climate change, we searched the Nexis database for transcripts that included the following terms: climate change, global warming, changing climate, climate warms, climate warming, warming climate, warmer climate, warming planet, warmer planet, warming globe, warmer globe, global temperatures, rising temperatures, hotter temperatures, climate science, climate scientist, Paris climate, climate accord, Paris accord, climate agreement, Paris agreement, and climate deal. Within the segments that discussed climate change, we identified ones that discussed solutions and responses to climate change by coding for segments that covered adaptation, mitigation, awareness-raising campaigns, renewable energy, clean technology, and climate action being taken by entities other than the U.S. government. Our analysis included any segment devoted to climate change, as well as any substantial mention or definitive statement on climate change by a media figure, which we defined as a show's host, anchor, correspondent, or recurring guest panelist. Our analysis did not include instances in interviews during which a non-media figure brought up climate change without being prompted to do so by a media figure unless the media figure subsequently engaged in discussion of climate change.

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