Andrea Austria / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Broadcast and cable TV news shows mentioned climate change in a combined 36% of wildfire segments

MSNBC and NBC were the standout networks, while CNN and ABC lagged

  • In mid-July, major wildfires raged from Siberia to the Western U.S., with the latter forcing thousands of people to evacuate and placing millions of others under threat from smoke. A Media Matters analysis of weeklong wildfire coverage from July 21-27 found that broadcast morning and evening TV news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS, as well as all original programming on cable news TV outlets CNN and MSNBC, connected the deadly heat and its impacts to our dangerously warming climate in 42 out of 116 segments, or just 36%. These numbers are a huge improvement from their reporting in early September 2020, although they fall short of mid-September 2020, when then-President Donald Trump’s climate denial in the face of devastating California wildfires received essentially wall-to-wall coverage on TV news shows.

    Scientists have noted that climate change plays a major role in expanding the wildfire season and making firesbigger, more severe, and faster than ever before, and more destructive.” These fires decimate local areas, with Western wildfires in 2020 doing an estimated $130-$150 billion in damage. With the Western U.S. suffering under extreme heat and drought and the peak of the wildfire season still a few weeks away, experts are predicting that the worst of this year’s wildfires is yet to come. Meanwhile, the smoke from these Western wildfires has already contributed to some of the worst air quality the East Coast has experienced in 15 years.

  • Key Findings

    • Broadcast TV outlets — ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS’ NewsHour — aired a combined 41 segments on their morning and evening TV news shows from July 21-27. Twelve of these, or 29%, mentioned climate change, with the bulk of climate mentions coming on NBC.
    • Cable TV news shows on CNN and MSNBC aired a combined 75 segments on wildfires from July 21-27. Thirty of these, or 40%, mentioned climate change, with the bulk of climate mentions coming on MSNBC.
  • 29% of broadcast news wildfire segments mentioned climate change -- a marked improvement over previous years of poor coverage

  • Morning and evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as the evening news program PBS NewsHour, aired a combined 41 segments on wildfires from July 21-27. Twelve of these -- 29% -- mentioned climate change.

  • Broadcast-TV-wildfire-coverage-July-2021
  • NBC was far and away the best network in connecting the wildfires to the climate crisis -- six out of its eight segments on wildfires mentioned climate. All six of these segments reported on the Western U.S. wildfires; two of them also mentioned that the wildfires are a public health issue, as dangerous smoke from the fires made its way toward the East Coast. An example of one such excellent segment comes from the July 22 edition of Today, which featured a clip of NASA climate scientist Kerry Cawse-Nicholson connecting the wildfires to climate change, stating, “The impacts of climate change may be seen in many different ways, including droughts, floods, increased storms, wildfires, both in terms of extent and intensity.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the July 22, 2021, edition of NBC's Today

  • News programs on CBS connected climate change to wildfires in three of the network’s 10 segments. One example came during a live interview with the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry on the July 27 edition of CBS This Morning. In reference to wildfires in Canada, Siberia, and the Western U.S., as well as global heat waves and flooding, Kerry stated that “this is a direct impact of the climate crisis.” Another mention, on the July 23 edition of CBS Evening News, noted how coronavirus is hampering efforts to fight the Western U.S. wildfires.

    PBS’ NewsHour mentioned climate change in two of its seven wildfire segments, with both mentions coming on NewsHour Weekend editions.

    ABC, meanwhile, aired 16 segments on wildfires and only one mentioned climate change. This mention, which came during the July 22 edition of Good Morning America, was not specific to the wildfires but more in the broader context of climate-fueled extreme weather happening across the globe. The poor climate performance here is regrettable considering that ABC did a decent job of connecting heat waves and drought to climate change just one month earlier.

    There has clearly been a marked improvement in broadcast TV news’ climate and wildfire coverage over the past several years. A Media Matters analysis from September 14-18, 2020, found that ABC, CBS, and NBC mentioned climate change in 30% of California wildfire segments (much of that coverage, though, centered around Trump’s climate denial). Earlier in September 2020, a Media Matters analysis found that the broadcast networks (including PBS) mentioned climate change in only 19% of wildfire segments. Additionally, an August 2020 Media Matters analysis found that only 4% of broadcast networks (excluding PBS) mentioned climate change in wildfire reporting, and a November 2019 Media Matters analysis found that same 4% of climate mentions in wildfire segments (including PBS).

  • 40% of wildfire segments on CNN and MSNBC mentioned climate change

  • MSNBC did an excellent job of linking climate change to wildfires from July 21 to 27 -- the network mentioned climate change in 20, or 61%, of its 33 wildfire segments during this time period. CNN, meanwhile, aired 42 segments on wildfires, and only 10 of them, or 24%, mentioned climate change.

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  • Most of MSNBC’s wildfire reporting was on the Western U.S. wildfires. Elected officials representing areas affected by the fires -- U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Gov. Kate Brown (D-OR), and Gov. Steve Sisolak (D-NV) -- appeared three times on MSNBC programs, and climate change was mentioned in all three segments. An excellent discussion occurred between Brown and host Chris Hayes on All In with Chris Hayes on July 21; Hayes also spent his opening monologue before this segment explaining that climate change is not some distant future threat -- it’s here right now.

  • Video file

    Citation From the July 21, 2021, edition of MSNBC's All In With Chris Hayes

  • There were also numerous climate mentions within MSNBC’s segments on global extreme weather. An excellent example of linking climate change to wildfires specifically and extreme weather broadly came from climate scientist Andrew Dessler on the July 24 edition of Kendis Gibson and Lindsey Reiser Report: “The new normal is going to be a lot worse than this because the warming is going to continue. And it's going to continue until we take action.”

    There was also a climate mention in MSNBC’s reporting on the Siberian wildfires -- an excellent example of this coming from NBC News’ Ali Arouzi on the July 24 edition of Alex Witt Reports:

  • ALEX WITT (ANCHOR): Ali, look, all these images are striking, but are officials making a climate change connection a definitive one?

    ALI AROUZI (NBC NEWS TEHRAN BUREAU CHIEF): That’s exactly what scientists are saying. They're saying that climate change is the root cause of all of these devastating floods and fires we're seeing from North America, to Europe, to Asia.

    Scientists are also saying, Alex, that the temperatures in the Arctic are the cause for all of these fires that we're seeing as well, like the ones in Siberia that are currently raging. And Siberia, incidentally, is one of the coldest places on the planet and that's why scientists are so alarmed with the frequency and intensity of the fires there. They're saying that the land in Siberia has never been this dry in living memory, the temperatures are far higher than they ought to be at this time of year.

  • Twelve of MSNBC’s 20 climate mentions in wildfire segments also included extreme weather context, such as how the West’s historic drought and rising temperatures are helping to fuel the wildfires there. Nine of the climate mentions also included a reference to the wildfire smoke as a public health issue.

    For CNN, six of the network’s 10 climate mentions were specific to the Western U.S. wildfires. One excellent example comes from the July 22 edition of CNN Newsroom With Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto, in an interview with Marcus Kauffman, public information officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry. Noting climate change’s effects on wildfires, he stated, “I think that we've all become accustomed in the fire service that wildfires start earlier, last longer, and are more destructive.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the July 22, 2021, edition of CNN Newsroom With Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto

  • Gov. Kate Brown also discussed Oregon’s wildfires and climate change during the July 25 edition of State of the Union, while meteorologist Derek Van Dam spoke specifically to the state’s Bootleg Fire on the July 24 edition of CNN Newsroom Live, stating: “I'm drawing this climate change connection here because the fire seasons over the Western U.S. are starting earlier and lasting longer. So the fingerprint of climate change is written all over that.”

    Another great CNN example came from climate scientist Michael Mann on the July 24 edition of CNN Newsroom with Pamela Brown, when he linked wildfires and general global extreme weather to the climate crisis.

    Despite the quality of CNN’s climate mentions, there were many missed opportunities for the network when it came to mentioning climate change within the context of broader extreme weather. While three of CNN’s wildfire climate mentions came in the context of broader extreme weather, at least seven of the network’s wildfire segments mentioned extreme weather without also addressing climate change. In general, climate change is intensifying certain extreme weather events and making them more common -- there’s a clear climate link behind incidents ranging from the Western U.S. heat waves, drought, and fires, to the flooding in Germany and China, and reporting on these events must mention that.

    While it was not counted as part of the larger data set, Fox News aired 12 segments on wildfires during the studied time period, and not a single one mentioned climate change. Fox has frequently used similar wildfire events in the past to downplay their links to climate change. (Fox’s data in this analysis has been kept separate from its counterparts CNN and MSNBC for this very reason -- although the latter two networks have been making strides in increasing their climate coverage, Fox is continuing to double down on climate delay and outright denial.)

    Although CNN and MSNBC have shown improvements in their recent coverage of climate and wildfires, July’s numbers don’t quite match the high water mark set last year. From September 14-18, 2020, MSNBC mentioned climate change in 66% of its California wildfire segments, while CNN mentioned climate in 57% of wildfire segments -- although these references largely occurred over a two-day period and primarily focused on Trump’s climate denial response to the California wildfires. An earlier September 2020 analysis found that CNN, Fox, and MSNBC mentioned climate in only 13% of wildfire segments, while in November 2019, the cable news networks mentioned climate change in less than 5% of segments about the fires. Again, CNN and MSNBC in particular are doing better when it comes to linking climate change to wildfires.

  • With more wildfires to come in 2021, will broadcast and cable TV networks do a better job of linking them to climate change?

  • In California, the worst wildfires the state has ever seen hit in September 2020. The year before, the worst of them were in late October and early November. That’s why it’s alarming that fires are raging this dangerously throughout the West in only mid-July -- with 3 million acres already burned this year, experts are saying that more is still to come.

    It’s great that broadcast and cable networks have improved upon their climate and wildfire reporting over the past several years, but they can always do better. Let’s hope they continue to accurately make the link between climate change and worsening fires before it's too late to take climate action.


    Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ This Morning and Evening News, NBC’s Today and Nightly News, and PBS’ NewsHour and for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any variations of either of the terms “fire” or “wildfire” from July 21-27, 2021.

    We reviewed segments, which we defined as instances when wildfires were the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of wildfires. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed the wildfires with one another. We did not count passing mentions or teasers.

    We then reviewed the identified segments for any mention of either of the terms “climate” or “global warming.” We also reviewed the identified segments for references to public health impacts of the wildfires, including harmful wildfire smoke or how COVID-19 has complicated efforts to fight fires. Additionally, we reviewed the identified segments for any mentions of heat waves, drought, flooding, and other extreme weather events going on at the same time as the fires.

    If wildfires came up in segments on extreme weather and “climate” or “global warming” were mentioned, we included that in our climate change count.