Research/Study Research/Study

Broadcast TV news segments about Hurricane Sally rarely mentioned climate change

The coverage continued the networks shallow hurricane reporting and failed to incorporate the lessons from the West Coast wildfires

A Media Matters analysis found that over a three-day period from September 15-17 during which Hurricane Sally battered the Gulf Coast, broadcast morning and evening TV news shows rarely connected the storm’s sudden intensity to climate change. In fact, the only climate mentions came during two weather forecasts.

  • Key findings

    • Corporate broadcast TV outlets — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 65 segments about Hurricane Sally during their morning and evening news programs from September 15-17.
    • Only two broadcast TV news segments referenced climate change while covering Hurricane Sally during the studied time period: They were both weather forecasts that aired during the September 15 episode of CBS This Morning and the September 16 episode of NBC’s Today
  • Corporate TV news’ segments about Hurricane Sally rarely mentioned climate change

  • Like Hurricane Laura, which broke records when it struck Louisiana a few weeks earlier, Sally exhibited clear signs of being worsened by climate change. Right before making landfall on the Alabama coast near the Florida Panhandle, the storm went through a period of rapid intensification that saw it strike as a Category 2 storm with winds up to 105 mph. As the painfully slow storm stalled over the Gulf Coast, Sally drove the third-highest storm surge ever recorded in Pensacola, Florida, and its torrential rains led to catastrophic flooding in other areas along the Gulf Coast.

    Despite the evidence that global warming is making storms like Sally stronger, wetter, and more frequent, broadcast TV news shows rarely mentioned climate change during any of the 65 segments they aired about the hurricane from September 15-17.

  • 9.28.20_Broadcast news coverage largely failed to link Hurricane Sally to climate change
  • Corporate broadcast TV news failed to connect Sally to climate change even during shows that mentioned how global warming was driving the devastating West Coast wildfires.

    According to a recent Media Matters study, from September 14 through 18, 30% of broadcast TV news shows’ segments on the wildfires mentioned climate change. Although this brief spike in mentions was driven by President Donald Trump’s inane comments dismissing climate change during his September 14 visit to California, it is still baffling why news shows didn’t make the same climate connection for Hurricane Sally.

  • Broadcast news coverage failed to connect climate change to Hurricane Laura just a few weeks earlier and to other hurricanes in years past

  • Over a similar three-day period beginning August 24, broadcast TV news outlets covering Hurricane Laura never mentioned climate change during any of the combined 50 segments they aired about the storm. This failure occurred despite Laura’s even more historic nature; when the storm made landfall on August 27, it was the most powerful hurricane to hit Louisiana in 150 years and it had rapidly intensified from Category 1 to Category 4 in just 24 hours.

    This continues a multi-year trend of broadcast TV news largely failing to connect climate change to devastating storms. In 2017, broadcast news shows only aired four total segments that discussed climate change in the context of that year’s extreme weather events, including just two segments that mentioned climate change in the context of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, or Maria. None of the broadcast networks’ news reports mentioned climate change in coverage of the 2018 hurricanes, which included Hurricanes Florence and Michael. And in 2019, broadcast TV news aired only one segment that mentioned climate change in a week of coverage of the most devastating storm last year, Hurricane Dorian.

  • The only mentions of how climate change fuels storms like Hurricane Sally came from meteorologists during weather segments

  • The only broadcast TV news mentions of Hurricane Sally and climate change between September 15-17 occurred during weather reports.

    On the September 15 episode of CBS This Morning, meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli noted how climate change was increasing the likelihood of wet, slow-moving storms like Hurricanes Harvey, Florence, Dorian, and Sally.

  • Video file

    Citation From the September 15, 2020, episode of CBS This Morning

  • And during the September 16 episode of NBC’s Today, co-host and meteorologist Al Roker explained how climate change is resulting in storms like Sally “overperforming.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the September 16, 2020, episode of NBC's Today

  • It is commendable that meteorologists like Berardelli and Roker are doing what they can to educate the public about climate change’s role in driving extreme weather events, including hurricanes and wildfires. But broadcast networks as a whole must move away from the familiar tropes of extreme weather coverage and consistently connect these events to the science of climate change, inform their viewers about why socially marginalized communities are at greater risk, and explain the public policy solutions to address these challenges.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ CBS This Morning and CBS Evening News, and NBC’s Today and Nightly News for any of the terms “hurricane,” “storm,” or “Sally" (including misspellings) from September 15-17, 2020. We included the third hour of NBC’s Today show.

    We counted segments, which we defined as instances when Hurricane Sally was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of Hurricane Sally in segments about other topics. We defined significant discussion as two or more speakers discussing Hurricane Sally with one another.

    We then reviewed each segment for whether any speaker connected climate change to Hurricane Sally.