Molly Butler / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

In 2020, broadcast TV networks mentioned climate solutions in less than 30% of overall climate change coverage

Similar to climate coverage as a whole, solutions coverage fell from 2019 to 2020

  • Introduction

  • In 2020, nightly news and Sunday morning political programs on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting Co. mentioned solutions or action to address climate change in  just 29% of their overall climate coverage -- a decrease from 2019, when these networks and programs mentioned solutions in 37% of climate coverage. Additionally, and for the first time ever, Media Matters also analyzed coverage on the morning news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC, which nearly mirrored their nightly counterparts: Solutions to climate change represented 28% of overall morning news programs’ climate coverage.

    Climate coverage on corporate broadcast news shows made up just 0.4% of overall news coverage, with 221 climate segments across morning, nightly, and Sunday political shows on corporate broadcast TV networks in 2020. Sixty-three of these segments mentioned climate solutions -- just 29% -- a tiny fraction of the already minuscule amount of coverage on the climate crisis.

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  • President Joe Biden’s climate plan was the most mentioned solution, with a mixture of direct and indirect references to his proposal. Other key topics included activism and awareness-raising campaigns and groups, agriculture or consumption-based solutions, and calls for a systemic change away from a fossil fuel economy in general. Overall, the coverage of solutions included a mix of both in-depth discussions and some questionable narratives featuring conservative framing of climate solutions.

    The data from this climate solutions report comes from Media Matters’ recent study of how climate change was covered on broadcast TV networks in 2020. The overall quantity of climate coverage in 2020 was extremely poor, as the minutes of climate coverage on nightly news and Sunday morning political shows plummeted by 53% from 2019. In fact, 2020 represented the lowest amount of climate coverage since 2016.

    Media Matters analyzed segments on corporate broadcast outlets’ three half-hour nightly news programs -- ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News -- and four hour-long Sunday morning news programs -- ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, and Fox News Sunday. Media Matters also analyzed segments on ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC’s Today, including the third hour. Due to the lack of year-to-year comparative data from previous studies, we analyzed the morning shows' quantity of coverage separately. However, we include the details of the morning shows’ coverage alongside the nightly and Sunday political shows’ programming.

  • Nightly news and Sunday political programs on corporate broadcast TV networks covered climate solutions in roughly 29% of overall climate segments in 2020

  • Nightly news and Sunday morning political shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, together with Fox News Sunday, aired a combined 63 segments on climate change in 2020. Collectively, just 18 of those segments -- 29% -- mentioned solutions to climate change.

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  • NBC mentioned climate solutions in six out of its 19 climate segments, constituting 32% of its overall climate coverage, with nightly news program NBC Nightly News and Sunday morning program Meet the Press airing three solutions segments each. This is a slight decrease from 2019, when NBC mentioned climate solutions in 41% of its overall climate coverage.

    ABC mentioned climate solutions in five of its 18 climate segments, constituting 28% of its overall climate coverage. Three of its solutions segments came on its Sunday program, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, while the remaining two mentions came on World News Tonight. This is a slight increase from 2019, when ABC mentioned solutions in 24% of its segments -- a notable improvement in an otherwise dismal year of climate coverage on corporate broadcast TV networks.

    CBS mentioned climate solutions in just four of its 22 climate segments -- only 18%. Three came on its nightly news program CBS Evening News, while the remaining example came on its Sunday morning program Face the Nation. Its percentage of climate solutions coverage in 2020 dropped by over half from 2019, when 39% of its climate coverage mentioned solutions. 

    Fox News Sunday had the highest percentage of coverage that included solutions among corporate broadcast news in 2020. The program mentioned climate solutions in 75% of its climate coverage -- three out of four segments. In 2019, Fox News Sunday also mentioned solutions in three of its four climate segments.

  • Morning news programs on corporate broadcast TV networks covered climate solutions in 28% of climate-related segments in 2020

  • For the first time ever, Media Matters analyzed how morning news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC covered climate change in 2020. Similar to their nightly news and Sunday morning show counterparts, roughly 28% of total climate segments on morning programs mentioned solutions -- 45 out of 158 climate segments.

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  • While NBC’s Today aired the most solutions segments -- 21 out of 75 total climate segments, or 28% -- CBS This Morning had the best percentage of segments at 31%, which was 16 out of 51 climate segments. ABC’s Good Morning America aired 8 solutions segments out of 32 total climate segments, accounting for 25% of its segments. (For reference, NBC’s Today has 17 and a half hours of total programming per week, ABC's Good Morning America has 13 hours of programming per week, and CBS This Morning has 12 hours per week.)

  • Biden’s plan to combat climate change was the biggest driver of climate solutions coverage in 2020

  • During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden’s plan to combat climate change called for $2 trillion to achieve an emissions free power sector by 2035. Discussion of his ambitious plan and the specific elements of it -- including transitioning to a clean energy economy and ending oil subsidies -- drove coverage of climate solutions in 2020.

    Direct and indirect references to Biden’s plan occurred a total of 20 times across morning, nightly, and Sunday morning show segments in 2020, accounting for 32% of all solutions coverage. The segments varied in their depth and scope -- some were brief mentions, while others discussed the specifics of his plan in more detail.

    The majority of direct mentions of Biden’s climate plan came on Sunday morning political shows. Combined, ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, and Fox News Sunday mentioned the plan seven times.

    The most substantive example came during the December 20 edition of ABC’s This Week. In a nearly six-minute-long interview, incoming Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm detailed many elements of Biden’s climate plan, including building out the infrastructure and manufacturing necessary for a transition to clean energy; approaching climate action equitably and ensuring those hardest hit by climate are the first to benefit from the transition; and taking an all-of-government approaching to solving the crisis.

  • Video file

    Citation From the December 20, 2020, edition of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopolous 

  • ABC’s other direct reference to Biden’s climate plan came on the October 25 edition of This Week; it came during a back-and-forth discussion between Rahm Emanuel and Chris Christie in the wake of the final presidential debate. The segment was politically focused and framed around how voters would respond to Biden’s call to transition away from oil and gas.

    NBC aired three direct references to Biden’s climate plan on Meet the Press. Two of them were in interviews with current White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield: On October 25, she noted that Biden’s climate plan is ultimately a jobs proposal that will invest in infrastructure, while on November 8, she mentioned that his plan has support from the progressive Sunrise Movement. The December 27 edition was focused on the politics of his plan and the Green New Deal, and there was little substantive talk of specific solutions.

    There was just one mention of Biden’s plan on Fox News Sunday, which came during a November 1 interview with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) about Biden’s plans for the U.S. to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

    There was also one mention during the November 8 edition of CBS’ Face the Nation in an interview with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who referenced Biden’s climate plan and the need for an all-inclusive energy strategy.

    Broadcast morning shows included four direct mentions of Biden’s climate plan in 2020, and all of them came on CBS This Morning. The program was the only one to air a segment in the immediate wake of Biden unveiling his climate plan on July 14. Other CBS This Morning mentions came on September 18, when Biden’s plan was referenced in the context of the election; on November 9, by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) discussing Biden’s policy proposals; and on December 2, in an interview with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

    Nightly news shows only mentioned Biden’s plan directly on two occasions. One brief mention came during the November 7 edition of NBC Nightly News, while the November 15 edition of CBS Evening News discussed Biden’s plan in the context of the destructive Atlantic hurricane season and global efforts to deal with climate change.

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    Citation From the November 15, 2020, edition of CBS Evening News

  • Clean energy jobs and ending oil subsidies also featured several times

    Besides averting worsening extreme weather events and rising sea levels, one huge potential upside to fighting climate change is massive job creation. Biden’s climate plan calls for the creation of 10 million jobs in the clean energy sector, a goal intended to help achieve both the transition away from fossil fuels and the economic recovery from the pandemic -- two of the administration's top priorities. 

    Clean energy jobs within the context of Biden’s climate plan were mentioned two times in the broadcast TV networks’ climate coverage in 2020; once on Fox News Sunday, and once on NBC Nightly News

    Ending oil subsidies is crucial to phasing out fossil fuels and fighting climate change, and it is a key element of Biden’s climate plan. By one estimate, U.S. subsidies to the fossil fuel industry amount to $20 billion per year, with 80% going to oil and gas. Ending oil subsidies was mentioned four times on corporate broadcast TV news in 2020. Three references came on Sunday morning shows on October 25, all in response to the presidential debate on October 23 in which Biden called for a transition away from oil. Another came during Al Roker’s interview with Jane Fonda during the September 8 edition of NBC’s Today.

    Outside of Biden’s climate plan, a clean energy transition and the benefits of moving away from fossil fuels were mentioned just once; this came during the February 23 edition of Fox News Sunday. Discussion of clean energy jobs also came during the September 13 edition of ABC's This Week, in an interview with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) about the western wildfires. Jane Fonda also mentioned banning drilling permits as a climate solution during the September 8 edition of NBC'sToday. Finally, a general mention of green jobs came during the September 21 edition of NBC's Today, in an excellent segment on how climate change “is showing no signs of slowing down” during the coronavirus pandemic.

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    Citation From the September 21, 2020, edition of NBC's Today

  • The overall quality of coverage featuring climate solutions was a mixed bag

  • Climate coverage that discussed solutions apart from Biden’s plan included a mixture of brief mentions and more in-depth discussions, as well as some problematic narratives.

    The morning shows included eight mentions of the need for systemic change to deal with the climate crisis, which means switching from a fossil fuel economy to one based on renewable energy. As climate scientist Michael Mann notes, individual choices such as eating less meat and consuming less electricity are effective but what is truly needed is “changing our entire energy system” through federal policies to hold polluters accountable. 

    On the September 11 edition of CBS This Morning, CBS meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli connected the western wildfires to climate change, and said, “We need systemic, collective solutions” to stop worsening weather and a warming world.

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    Citation From the September 11, 2020, edition of CBS This Morning

  • Agriculture and nutrition featured six times as solutions in 2020. On the nightly shows, there was a segment on sustainable coffee farming as a potential climate solution; this came on the January 18 edition of NBC Nightly News. On the morning programs, there was a CBS This Morning segment on sustainable hemp farming, and two segments on plant-based nutrition on NBC’s Today. Additionally, CBS This Morning and ABC’s World News Tonight did brief segments on planting trees as a climate solution.

    There were also two morning show segments from CBS and NBC on California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) plan to eliminate the sale of gas vehicles in California by 2035, and two segments on campaigns raising awareness of climate change from ABC and NBC. One excellent example came from the aforementioned September 21 edition of NBC's Today, in which Roker noted that 2020 may be recognized as “the tipping point” for climate catastrophe, and climate scientist Radley Horton stated, “These individuals having the climate conversation, talking about these vulnerabilities and pointing out that there's a way, there's a future where we don’t only have fewer extreme events but we also have more green jobs, less expensive energy, economic growth, and less air pollution, too.” 

    Other morning show segments featured more fringe examples of climate actions: Today did two interviews with the founder of a company making vodka with captured carbon emissions; CBS This Morning did a segment on larvaceans (tiny sea creatures) and carbon sequestration, and Good Morning America did one focused on an environmentally conscious American Girl doll. While these may be interesting ideas, they are not necessarily mainstream climate solutions.

    On February 18, all three major morning shows mentioned the Bezos Earth Fund, which was also mentioned the night before on ABC’s World News Tonight. The fund is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ personal $10 billion project aimed at fighting climate change. Unfortunately, the segments came across like a press release and did not mention Amazon’s greenwashing and history of pollution. Furthermore, a focus on the über-rich and their plans to deal with climate change ignores the fact that they also have some of the biggest individual carbon footprints on Earth, while minimizing the grassroots activists and groups who do most of the work on climate solutions. 

    In January, Today gave a nearly five-minute interview to Benji Backer, founder of the climate activist group the American Conservation Coalition. While Today highlighted work the group is doing in trying to get more Republicans on board with climate solutions, the interview ignored that the group opposes even a carbon tax and supports a problematic “all of the above” approach to energy generation. Additionally, there was no time given in 2020 by any morning program to similar youth climate groups on the left, such as Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future or the Sunrise Movement.

    Another problematic segment came on the November 8 edition of CBS’ Face the Nation, during which Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) called for the continued use of coal, oil, and natural gas, and said that fracking can be done continually in a safe manner. Host Margaret Brennan did not press Manchin on the fact that scientists say we must rapidly reduce emissions from those sources in order to avert the worst effects of climate change.

  • PBS NewsHour again outperformed its corporate counterparts in covering climate solutions

  • The weekday editions of PBS NewsHour mentioned climate solutions in 47% of its climate segments -- 27 out of a total of 58 segments in 2020. This is more than three times the number aired by its nightly news counterparts on corporate broadcast networks combined. PBS also had a slight increase in 2020 from its 2019 solutions numbers, when it mentioned solutions in 42% of its climate segments.

    Because PBS NewsHour is an hour long, the program had more time than its nightly news counterparts to discuss solutions in depth. And rather than focus on Biden’s climate plan as the key solutions story in 2020 -- only one weekday NewsHour segment touched on Biden’s plan, in a climate-focused interview with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on July 14 -- PBS’ discussion of solutions was much more varied, with three segments each covering campaigns to raise awareness and sustainable agriculture.

    PBS also aired two separate segments on the European Union’s plan to go carbon neutral by 2050. During the destructive western wildfires in autumn, NewsHour aired two segments on building homes in fire-prone areas, which has been a recurring problem for quite some time. Additionally, there were two segments each on planting trees and transitioning to renewable energy.

    Similar to CBS climate specialist Jeff Berardelli, University of California, Santa Barbara professor Leah Stokes used the California wildfires to call for systemic change. During the September 7 edition of NewsHour, Stokes expressed the need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels in order to prevent even worse extreme weather disasters from happening in the future.

  • Another excellent segment on the importance of climate communication came during PBS’ reporting on the Australian wildfires on February 5, highlighting the efforts of TV meteorologists in connecting the wildfires to climate change and increase public awareness of the issue.

  • Climate solutions also got a nod from NewsHour when discussing the proposed COVID-19 relief bill in late December. Correspondent Lisa Desjardins noted how hydrofluorocarbons, which have high impacts on warming, will be phased out over 15 years as part of the stimulus legislation.

  • Talking about climate solutions can help spur people into action

  • A 2018 study by the Harvard Shorenstein Center highlighted the importance of discussing solutions in climate change reporting -- it is important for journalists to avoid giving people a sense of powerlessness when looking at the destructiveness of climate change. More recent research and writing has backed up this claim.

    Speaking with Yale Climate Connections earlier this year, Liza Gross of the Solutions Journalism Network called for including “the whole story” in reporting on climate change:

  • If there is no hope, then why would I even read about it or listen to a broadcast or watch a video about it?” 

    She further noted that “by providing evidence-based, in-depth stories on effective solutions to these problems, journalists can help enrich people’s understanding of the issue.

  • Meteorologists talking about climate change can have an impact, too. A recent study from July 2020 on the effectiveness of TV weathercasters reporting on the local impacts of climate change found that “watching even a brief amount of localized climate reporting (less than 6 min) delivered by TV weathercasters helps viewers develop a more accurate understanding of global climate change as a locally and personally relevant problem, and offer strong support for this promising approach to promoting enhanced public understanding of climate change through public media.” Fortunately, Jeff Berardelli of CBS and Al Roker of NBC consistently use the best science to connect climate change to real-time weather events, and they have occasionally discussed climate solutions in their segments.

    Recent polling shows that a large majority of the American public want the government to do something about climate change, and that “developing sources of clean energy should be a high or very high priority.” At the global level, 64% of people “believe climate change is a global emergency.” 

    It’s clear that climate change is viewed as a serious threat, and the media has to do a better job of incorporating solutions into their climate reporting. It’s a shame that coverage of both climate change and climate solutions fell so much in 2020, at a time when we need it more than ever to spur the public into action to help fight for a livable planet.


    Media Matters searched transcripts in the Nexis database for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ This Morning, Evening News, and Face the Nation; NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press; Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday; and PBS’ NewsHour for any of the terms or any derivations of the 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,” “climate deal,” “climate crisis,” “green new deal,” “climate conference,” “climate plan,” “COP 26,” “carbon emissions,” “greenhouse gases,” or “net zero” from January 1 through December 31, 2020.

    We included any segment devoted to climate change, which we defined as instances when climate change was the stated topic of discussion or instances when we found “significant discussion” of climate change. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed climate change with one another. We also included segments when network journalists or contributors -- which we defined as hosts, anchors, correspondents, or recurring guest panelists employed by the network -- substantially mentioned climate change or made a definitive statement about climate change. We defined “substantial mentions” and “definitive statements” as uninterrupted blocks of speech at least a paragraph in length by a network journalist or contributor.

    We did not include instances when persons other than network journalists or contributors commented in passing on climate change without first being prompted by a network journalist or contributor; however, we did include such instances if the comment from a non-network journalist or contributor resulted in significant discussion.

    We then coded the identified climate segments as including discussion or statements about climate solutions or actions when a climate segment referenced any actions, policies, regulations, or technologies intended to mitigate the effects of climate change, reduce carbon emissions, or create the political or economic environment necessary to transition away from fossil fuels.