Instead of informing viewers about how the recent heat and wildfire events in Asia, Canada, and the Pacific Northwest are a stark reminder of the profound changes being driven by anthropogenic global warming, national TV news shows’ lack of coverage of these extreme weather events demonstrated how far broadcast and cable news still needs to go to provide consistent and substantive coverage of climate change.
As the United States moves into extreme weather season, which includes the beginning of the 2023 hurricane season on June 1, it is imperative that major news networks expand and deepen their extreme weather coverage. This is especially important considering the role a potential El Niño could play in fueling storm formation and driving global temperatures to record levels, and how those developments could be weaponized by professional climate skeptics.
Recent heat and wildfire events demonstrate how extreme weather is now a year-round challenge
Since March, wildfires have ravaged Alberta, Canada. Currently, the 90 active wildfires in Alberta — including 23 burning out of control — have forced thousands of people from their homes and degraded air quality across Canada and the United States.
Meanwhile, a record-breaking heat wave has gripped large swaths of Asia since April, causing at least 13 deaths in India and upending the lives of millions of people. It has been described by climatologist and weather historian Maximiliano Herrera as the “worst April heat wave in Asian history.”
These events have received little to no coverage from national TV news.
National TV news coverage of a recent American extreme weather event, the Pacific Northwest heat wave, which broke records in Oregon and Washington, did not fare much better than its international climate coverage. From May 13-15, broadcast and cable news shows aired a combined 9 minutes of coverage about the heat wave, and none of them mentioned climate change. Broadcast news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired 6 minutes of coverage, and cable news shows on CNN and Fox News aired 3 minutes. MSNBC did not air any coverage about the heat wave during this period.
Extreme weather events serve as undeniable reminders of the profound harms that human-induced global warming is causing our planet. As visible manifestations of climate change, these moments capture the attention of viewers. From record-breaking heat waves scorching the Pacific Northwest to the relentless heat and wildfires plaguing Canada to the wildfire smoke harming the health of Americans in the Northeast and Midwest, there is a clear relationship between extreme weather events that demands media attention. However, national TV news still fails to consistently connect these events to each other or to the larger threat of climate change.
This is why Media Matters has been calling on national TV news to cover extreme weather as a year-round phenomenon instead of as a series of discrete and unconnected events since 2021. Broadcast and cable news must consistently connect the dots between extreme weather events, and detail how the increasing frequency and devastation of many of these events is being driven by larger global warming patterns and trends. This approach could help viewers grasp the magnitude and urgency of our predicament — and even motivate collective action to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.
Why strong extreme weather reporting matters
Accurate and comprehensive reporting plays a vital role in shaping public discourse and fostering informed decision-making to address the urgent challenges posed by the climate crisis, but failing to consistently connect these extreme weather events to climate change has far-reaching and detrimental consequences.
Limited public awareness and understanding of the underlying causes of these events, largely gilded by the fossil fuel industry, has already hindered effective climate action and policy changes. When the media fails to bridge the information gap between coverage of extreme weather and climate change, it leaves an opening where misinformation and skepticism can thrive, perpetuating public confusion and inaction. That’s why it is crucial for national TV news networks to step up their coverage and to be vigilant against spreading potential disinformation, such as falsely attributing the disproportionate share of climate impacts during this summer's extreme weather events to the return of El Niño in 2023.
El Niño, a weather phenomenon characterized by warming sea surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean, has significant implications for hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin. While El Niño traditionally suppresses hurricane formation, the uncertain intensity and timing of this year's El Niño could challenge this trend. National TV news outlets should emphasize the potential impacts of El Niño on hurricane development to demonstrate the interplay between climate patterns and extreme weather events — by highlighting the scientific consensus and providing in-depth analysis, news coverage can inform the public and counter climate skeptics' claims. According to a prescient article The Guardian wrote in 2016:
Simply put, without global warming we would not be seeing record-breaking heat year after year. In fact, 2014 broke the temperature record without an El Niño assist, and then El Niño helped push 2015 over 2014, and 2016 over 2015.
Sadly, we live in a post-truth world dominated by fake news in which people increasingly seek information that confirms their ideological beliefs, rather than information that’s factually accurate from reliable sources. Because people have become incredibly polarized on the subject of climate change, those with a conservative worldview who prefer maintaining the status quo to the steps we need to take to prevent a climate catastrophe often seek out climate science-denying stories.
This is effectively the default position of the Republican Party, and it’s the only major political party in the world in denial about scientific reality. The party can take that position because the conservative media outlets that its voters consume misinform them with post-truth nonsense like this.
Unfortunately, when it comes to science, we don’t get to choose our own truths. Scientists and science journalists effectively held the post-truth crowd accountable on this story. They’ll have their work cut out for them in the coming years.
How national TV networks can improve their extreme weather reporting
As extreme weather events become more frequent and severe, national TV news has a responsibility to connect them to climate change, provide comprehensive reporting about the key drivers of global warming — namely the burning of fossil fuels — engage credible sources, and counter skepticism. By doing so, they can encourage public awareness, understanding, and action to address the climate crisis.
However, there is still a long way to go; the term “fossil fuels” to describe what is driving planetary warming appeared in only 8% of corporate broadcast news’ climate segments in 2022.
National TV news networks have shown that, when they deign to, they can produce informative and deeply reported extreme weather segments. For example, one of corporate broadcast news’ better 2022 climate segments aired last July on CBS Mornings, which demonstrated how extreme weather coverage benefits from experts who can credibly communicate climate science and the urgency of climate action to viewers.
The segment, which was about the extreme heat gripping multiple places on Earth, featured an interview with Kirsty McCabe of the U.K.’s Royal Meteorological Society, who stated that “climate change has everything to do with the extreme weather that we're seeing at the moment — and it's human-induced climate change, it’s not a natural variation.”
One of cable news’ better climate segments last year aired during the September 2, 2022, episode of CNN Tonight, detailing how extreme heat and precipitation around the world are linked by climate change and explaining why Pakistan’s unique geography makes the country extremely vulnerable to harmful climate impacts.
Another strong segment aired during the October 2, 2022, episode of MSNBC’s American Voices with Alicia Menendez featured climate scientist Suzana J. Camargo explaining the science behind the rapid intensification of storms like Hurricane Ian and the need to build climate resiliency by reducing fossil fuels use and improving infrastructure.
These examples each highlight different aspects of how news coverage should seek to better explain the links between extreme weather events and climate change for their audiences.
National TV networks should allocate more airtime for in-depth analysis and exploration of the connections between extreme weather events and climate change. Rather than merely reporting on individual events, news shows should provide comprehensive coverage that contextualizes the events within the broader climate change narrative. This entails examining the underlying causes, discussing long-term trends, and exploring potential future impacts. By offering a holistic view, viewers would better understand the significance of each event and its link to climate change.
Highlighting the localized impacts of extreme weather events is crucial in demonstrating the real-life consequences faced by frontline communities. National TV networks should amplify the experiences and perspectives of affected communities, while also providing a global perspective to underscore the interconnectedness of these events and the shared challenges faced worldwide. To establish credibility and provide accurate information, national TV networks should actively involve climate scientists and experts in their reporting. These knowledgeable voices can explain the scientific basis for climate change, offer insights into specific extreme weather events, and address common misconceptions or skepticism. By relying on authoritative sources, networks can ensure their reporting is accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
National TV networks should also take responsibility for countering climate change skepticism and addressing misconceptions. By debunking misinformation and presenting accurate information in a clear and accessible manner, networks can help viewers distinguish between facts and falsehoods, fostering a better understanding of the urgency and magnitude of the climate crisis.
The benefits of improved extreme weather coverage
Enhancing national TV news coverage of extreme weather would increase public awareness and understanding of climate change and its connection to extreme weather events. It would also empower individuals and communities to distinguish accurate information from misinformation, while reducing the spread and impact of climate change misinformation. Improved extreme weather coverage could also generate public pressure on policymakers to prioritize climate action, driving meaningful change at the local, national, and global level.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press, as well as all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “heat,” “heat wave,” “temperatures,” “hot,” “hotter,” or “hottest” within close proximity of any of the terms “Oregon,” “Washington,” “Canada,” “Seattle,” “Portland,” or “Pacific Northwest” from May 13, 2023, when the heat wave began, through May 15, 2023, when the heat wave ended.
We included segments, which we defined as instances when the Pacific Northwest extreme heat wave was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the heat wave. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed the heat wave with one another. We also included weather reports, which we defined as instances when the heat wave was the stated topic of discussion by a meteorologist.
We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the heat wave without another speaker in the segment engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the host or anchor promoted a segment about the heat wave scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We then reviewed all identified segments and weather reports for mentions of the terms “climate” or “global warming.”