Breaking down each broadcast TV network’s coverage of climate change in 2021
Analyzing climate coverage on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS
Media Matters’ annual climate study found that broadcast TV networks ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a record 1,275 combined minutes of climate coverage across their morning, evening, and Sunday political news shows in 2021 — a more than threefold increase from 2020. CBS was the best-performing network in terms of the quantity of climate coverage, followed by NBC and ABC.
The full 2021 study includes Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday. When combining this program with the other corporate broadcast TV news programs, a total of 1,316 combined minutes of climate coverage were aired in 2021.
Additionally, PBS NewsHour aired 151 climate segments in 2021, exceeding the high bar the network set in 2019, when it aired 121.
The study itself gives a broad overview of the quantity of each network’s climate coverage. Below, we provide a more in-depth analysis of how each news program across the three corporate broadcast networks along with PBS NewsHour fared in 2021, including by comparing their performance to each other and to previous years. In addition, we will highlight the institutional commitment that each network has made to covering climate change, and how it has impacted their reporting.
CBS produced the most combined climate coverage in 2021
CBS aired nearly nine and a half hours of climate coverage (approximately 569 minutes) across its morning, evening, and Sunday morning news shows in 2021, making it far and away the best-performing network in terms of quantity of climate coverage. In fact, 45% of all 1,275 minutes of coverage on ABC, CBS, and NBC in 2021 aired across the three major CBS news programs.
Each of the three major CBS news programs — CBS Mornings, CBS Evening News, and Face the Nation — aired more minutes and segments of climate coverage in 2021 than their broadcast TV counterparts.
CBS Mornings aired 387 minutes across 137 segments in 2021, totaling over six hours of climate coverage. In 2020, the program aired just 89 minutes, making it the most improved morning news program in terms of quantity of climate coverage — a 335% increase. CBS Mornings’ 387 minutes of coverage represent 29% of overall broadcast TV climate coverage in 2021. It is also more than the 380 minutes of combined climate coverage aired across all broadcast TV morning news, nightly news, and Sunday show programs in 2020.
It is worth noting that CBS Mornings devoted nearly its entire second hour of programming on Earth Day last year to climate-related coverage. The program also aired significantly more coverage than its morning show counterparts in months when climate coverage generally took a step back. In May, for example, CBS Mornings aired 29 minutes of climate coverage while NBC’s Today and ABC’s Good Morning America aired a combined 15 minutes. In July, the program again aired 29 minutes of climate coverage, while ABC and NBC morning shows aired a mere nine minutes combined.
Additionally, the October 9 edition of CBS Saturday Morning aired an over-eight minute segment on the negative climate impacts of Bitcoin mining, making it the longest single corporate broadcast TV morning news climate segment in 2021. (In fact, CBS also aired the second through sixth-longest morning news show climate segments in 2021.)
CBS Evening News aired 139 minutes of climate coverage across 65 segments — a 379% increase in time from 2020, when the program aired just 29 minutes of climate coverage across 20 segments. This marks the fifth year in a row that CBS Evening News was the best-performing nightly news program in minutes of climate coverage. In 2021, it was the only nightly news program to air over two hours of climate coverage, significantly beating 2019, when it aired 98 minutes of coverage. In fact, its 139 minutes of climate coverage aired in 2021 represents a record for nightly news programs going back to at least 2011, when Media Matters first began collecting such data.
CBS’ Face the Nation aired 43 minutes of coverage across 18 segments, slightly more than a five-fold increase in time from 2020, when it aired just eight minutes across two segments. Additionally, Face the Nation featured two of the only three women of color appearing as guests on Sunday show programs in 2021: Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Cecilia Rouse on the April 4 edition and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres on the October 31 edition.
In 2019, CBS was among the first wave of news outlets to join the Covering Climate Now initiative, a journalistic partnership that aims to get newsrooms to provide more and better climate coverage. At the time, CBS News’ Vice President of Standards and Practices Al Ortiz stated that “CBS News’ decision to commit to more climate change coverage is not a play for ratings — the public will decide whether this turns out to be a ratings winner or a ratings loser.” The network’s Eye on Earth reporting series continues to look at key climate and environmental issues, and during the COP26 meeting in early November 2021, the Eye on Earth series expanded to cover more climate issues in-depth and across multiple platforms.
Earlier this year, the network’s 2020-21 Environmental, Social, and Governance report further outlined its commitment to “using our platforms to spotlight the urgency of the climate crisis.”
In 2020-21, CBS News signed on to the Covering Climate Now pledge to elevate climate change stories throughout our news coverage. We continued our coverage via regular news segments and series such as Climate Watch. In April 2021, the network launched a special series, Eye on Earth: Our Planet in Peril, tied to Earth Day and focusing on climate change and potential solutions. It has also covered climate-related stories via its flagship public affairs show 60 Minutes, including the episode “Venice Is Drowning,” which was nominated for a 2020 Environmental Media Association (EMA) award for documentary series. CBS’ drama Madam Secretary was also nominated in the television category for its episode “The New Normal,” which explored both the physical dangers and political complexities of climate change. In reflection of its ongoing commitment, CBS News’ programs have ranked among the top of Media Matters for America’s annual study of climate coverage for several years running.
Another driver of CBS’ dedicated climate coverage has been meteorologist Jeff Berardelli. The network’s “meteorologist and climate specialist” has long played a key role in incorporating climate discussion into his weather reports on CBS Mornings. He has also acted as a correspondent in numerous reports that tackle climate change for the network — for example, he was the reporter on the ground in the aforementioned Bitcoin mining segment, interviewing several people in Seneca Lake, New York. Although Berardelli left CBS in late 2021, we hope that CBS continues its focus on spotlighting the urgency of climate change in future coverage.
NBC was the next best-performing network in the quantity of climate coverage
NBC’s three major news programs — Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press — aired nearly six and a half hours of combined climate coverage (383 minutes) in 2021. This represents a 141% increase from 2020, when NBC aired a combined 159 minutes of climate coverage. Additionally, NBC’s 383 minutes of coverage in 2021 were more than the combined total of climate coverage on all broadcast TV networks in 2020 (380 minutes).
NBC Nightly News aired 113 minutes of coverage across 59 segments in 2021, making it second to CBS Evening News in the quantity of climate coverage. Today aired nearly four hours of coverage (239 minutes) across 120 segments in 2021 (again, second to CBS Mornings in terms of quantity of climate coverage). Meet the Press aired only 31 minutes of climate coverage in 2021, making it the worst-performing broadcast TV Sunday mornings news show in the quantity of climate coverage. Last year, NBC bested both of its network counterparts in total climate coverage, airing 159 minutes across 94 segments.
Today’s climate coverage looks good on paper, but taken into context of the program’s extended runtime compared to its competitors, it’s disappointing that it did not air the most minutes of climate coverage in 2021. This is because Today airs for three hours on weekdays, unlike ABC’s Good Morning America and CBS Mornings, which air for only two hours on weekdays. That’s five whole extra hours of weekly coverage compared to its counterparts — yet CBS Mornings vastly outperformed Today in total minutes of climate coverage in 2021. (Last year, however, Today was the best-performing morning news show in the overall quantity of climate coverage).
The third hour of Today (9 a.m. to 10 a.m. ET) aired 56 minutes across 15 climate segments in 2021 — 23% of Today’s total climate coverage. Notable segments during the third hour included climate-focused interviews with White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy (January 27), Bill Gates (February 17), and activist Greta Thunberg (October 12). In the future, we hope that Today’s third hour will air more climate coverage.
NBC, like CBS, was an early member of the Covering Climate Now initiative. The network’s news programs participated in the initiative's first joint week of coverage around Earth Day, running a weeklong “Climate in Crisis” series from September 16-23, 2019, and officially joined in 2020. NBC also ran a “Climate Challenge” series in the lead-up to Earth Day in April 2021 and again in September 2021.
Additionally, Today has been doing dedicated segments on environmental issues since at least 2007. In April 2021, Today explored environmental issues all month through its “TODAY Goes Green” initiative.
NBC weather anchor Al Roker is a key player in the network’s climate coverage. He was featured in a recent Washington Post article about his commitment to covering climate issues, stating that “I think people want action, and they are taking it into their own hands.” In March, he received the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism from Arizona State University, telling the local Phoenix NBC affiliate ahead of his acceptance, “I think most of our viewers do think it's important … because climate, no matter who you are, where you live, it's going to affect you. Whether it's directly or indirectly, it's going to affect you and it's certainly going to affect our children and this is one of the, if not the, greatest overarching crisis of our time.”
ABC represented the most improved coverage overall
ABC aired nearly five and a half hours of climate coverage (approximately 323 minutes) across its morning news, nightly news, and Sunday morning news shows in 2021. In 2020, the network aired just 90 minutes of combined coverage — a 259% increase. But for the second year in a row, ABC trailed behind its corporate broadcast counterparts in the combined minutes of climate coverage. Despite lagging behind CBS and NBC again in 2021, ABC showed significant improvement over previous years in terms of quantity and quality of segments.
ABC’s World News Tonight aired 92 minutes of climate coverage across 57 segments in 2021. It marks the ninth consecutive year that World News Tonight aired fewer minutes of climate coverage than its counterparts on CBS and NBC. There are, however, some promising trends in ABC’s evening news climate coverage in 2021, which increased 667% from 2020, when the program aired just 12 minutes. Additionally, the network’s 92 minutes of evening news show climate coverage this year is more than the previous six years combined — from 2015 to 2020, World News Tonight aired just 77 combined minutes of climate coverage.
ABC’s This Week aired 36 minutes of climate coverage across 12 segments, representing an 80% increase in time from 2020 (20 minutes). This is more minutes of coverage than NBC’s Meet the Press (31), but less than CBS’ Face the Nation and Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday (43 and 40 minutes, respectively). Additionally, This Week featured the only two climate scientists to appear as guests on Sunday show programs in 2021: Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University and Kristina Dahl of the Union of Concerned Scientists on the August 8 edition.
ABC’s Good Morning America aired 195 minutes of climate coverage in 2021, over three hours across 106 segments. In 2020, the program aired just 58 minutes of climate coverage — a 236% increase in airtime. Good Morning America’s climate coverage last year peaked in November when the show aired 84 minutes — more than all of its climate coverage in 2020 combined.
In November, ABC announced its 'Climate Crisis: Saving Tomorrow' reporting initiative, a month-long focus on climate coverage that coincided with the COP26 United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The initiative spanned seven continents and occurred across multiple ABC platforms, preceded by the network’s announcement that it was joining Covering Climate Now. ABC News President Kim Godwin said of the initiative:
"ABC News is committed to in-depth reporting on the climate change crisis and its effect on the people and communities around us. … Our global coverage across each and every continent, reporting on the stark reality of the earth's dire condition and seeking the answers on how to create change now, reflects our dedication to shedding light on one of the most pressing issues of our time."
ABC’s climate reporting in November was a bright spot for the network’s relatively poor history of climate coverage. The November 1 edition of World News Tonight aired a nearly eight-minute segment on how climate change is contributing to a horrific famine in Madagascar, making it the longest single corporate broadcast TV evening news climate segment in 2021. (Additionally, the program aired the second-longest nightly news climate segment in 2021 on November 1 — nearly four minutes discussing COP26 and President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.) Additionally, World News Tonight anchor David Muir reported on November 4 that its coverage contributed to a major increase in donations for humanitarian aid to the area: “Tonight, the World Food Program says after our reporting, they've received $1.8 million in donations; more than 11,000 donors and counting."
World News Tonight led all networks’ evening shows in climate coverage during the month of November, airing 35 minutes of coverage across 15 segments. (CBS Evening News was the next best performer, with 30 minutes.) Good Morning America’s 84 minutes across 34 segments similarly led the broadcast networks’ morning show climate coverage in November. (CBS Mornings was the next best performer that month, with 47 minutes.) Clearly, ABC’s climate coverage is on an upward trend, illustrating what a commitment to coverage at the highest levels can look like and achieve.
PBS NewsHour once again did the best job of covering climate change
PBS NewsHour has traditionally outperformed its corporate broadcast counterparts when it comes to both the quantity and quality of climate change coverage. 2021 was no different.
PBS NewsHour aired 151 climate segments in 2021, a 160% increase from 2020, when the program aired just 58 climate segments. Like its corporate counterparts, most of NewsHour’s segments came in the last quarter of 2021 — the show aired 68 segments over that time period, for 45% of its overall climate coverage. And again similar to its corporate broadcast counterparts, NewsHour’s coverage from November to December dropped off significantly, going from 22 segments to just four.
As weekday editions of PBS NewsHour are one hour long, this generally allows for longer and more in-depth discussion of climate issues when compared to its corporate network counterparts that must account for commercial breaks. It is not uncommon to see anywhere from six to nine-minute-long climate-focused segments on the PBS program. (In fact, the November 1 edition of PBS NewsHour had a 10 and a half-minute segment on COP26.
Its format also allows PBS NewsHour to cover some generally under-reported climate issues. For example, PBS NewsHour was the only broadcast nightly news program in 2021 to cover the possible collapse of the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica; the impacts of climate change on mental health; Line 3 pipeline protests; and murders of environmental activists around the globe.
For the methodology behind the data in this article, see the full study: How broadcast TV networks covered climate change in 2021.