Broadcast TV news does a poor job of covering the climate crisis and its consequences, and cable news shows fare even worse in their reporting. Minority and low-income communities are the most at risk from the climate crisis and environmental racism; their stories must become central to television news reporting on climate change and the environment.
To gather examples of how broadcast news shows report on environmental justice, Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC to examine the ways they incorporated environmental justice stories into their coverage of hurricanes Harvey in 2017 and Florence in 2018. These storms devastated minority communities in Houston, TX, and North Carolina, and gave broadcast news a compelling rationale to discuss environmental racism and why communities of color and low-income communities too often bear the brunt of such weather patterns. But our research found that broadcast news shows did not air a single substantive segment that discussed either of these hurricanes through the lens of environmental justice.
Numerous studies, including research conducted by federal scientists, show that the most vulnerable communities are disproportionately at risk from the consequences of climate change. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in late 2018:
Social, economic, and geographic factors shape the exposure of people and communities to climate-related impacts and their capacity to respond. Risks are often highest for those that are already vulnerable, including low-income communities, some communities of color, children, and the elderly.
In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other federal agencies, released a Climate and Health Assessment report that found human-induced climate change “will have the largest health impact on vulnerable populations including … some communities of color, limited English proficiency and immigrant groups, Indigenous peoples,” and others.
African American and Latino communities also bear the burden of corporate fossil-fuel pollution and state-sanctioned environmental racism. According to a 2018 EPA study, people of color in the U.S. are exposed to more air pollution than white people are, with African Americans experiencing the highest levels of air pollutants. The negative health effects of air pollution on fence-line communities (those adjacent to corporate polluters) are well-documented.
It is no surprise that a 2017 survey conducted by ecoAmerica and Lake Partners found that 91% of African Americans and 90% of Latinos are concerned about climate change, compared to 69% of whites. And more than 80% of African Americans and Latinos believe that the government should protect the country from climate change.
Here are some examples of strong environmental justice reporting -- from local news, cable news, and nonprofits -- that national broadcast news could emulate
The following segments from local news broadcasts, cable TV news, and nonprofit news organizations are strong examples of informative and empathetic environmental justice reporting that centers frontline and fence-line communities. The examples from local news and PBS Newshour, in particular, demonstrate how national broadcast news shows could easily incorporate environmental justice reporting into their staid formats.
National broadcast news cannot continue ignoring environmental justice stories
This year, communities across the country have faced extreme weather events ranging from bomb cyclones to flooding to heat waves. On top of that, the Trump administration is engaged in an all-out assault on environmental regulations designed to protect the air, water, and land for the most vulnerable populations. While these stories are undercovered generally, the effects of the climate crisis and environmental racism receive far too little coverage in the broadcast news media. This reality is not only reflected in the content of the reporting, but also in the inadequate representation of minorities, women, scientists, and environmental journalists in discussions about climate change.
The science tells us that our country will be affected in myriad ways by increased extreme weather, which will also continue to create new constituencies who are being harmed by the climate crisis such as the Midwest farmers currently trying to recover from cataclysmic flooding. Hopefully, they will add their voices to those of struggling coal miners advocating for a “just transition” away from coal, indigenous populations protesting extractive industries poisoning their lands, and fence-line communities fighting for clean air and water. As the effects of the climate crisis become more prevalent and pervasive, it is incumbent upon broadcast TV news outlets to give environmental justice issues the attention they deserve.