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Broadcast TV news shows link Western heat wave and drought to climate change in 27% of segments

While this is a huge improvement in coverage from previous years, there is still more work to be done

  • Last week, parts of the western U.S. suffered under a massive heat wave that affected some 40 million people, shattered temperature records, and strained power grids from California to Texas. The heat wave came on top of an already severe megadrought in the region, one of the worst in 500 years. Climate scientists have noted that extreme heat events are “some of the clearest impacts of climate change on extreme weather,” as well as the most deadly. Scientists have also warned that these events will become increasingly intense, last longer, and become more frequent without immediate climate action. The heat wave across the West was notable not just for its excruciating temperatures, but also for its duration and its arrival before the official start of summer.

    Media Matters reviewed morning and nightly news shows on the three major corporate broadcast TV networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- as well as broadcast network PBS’ nightly news program NewsHour for news segments on either the heat wave or the drought between June 13 and June 20. We found that 27% of western extreme weather segments -- 14 out of 52 -- mentioned climate change. While this is a huge improvement by broadcast networks over previous years in linking climate change to extreme heat events, there is still room for growth in this area, as “essentially every severe to record-breaking heat event globally now has a detectable human fingerprint” due to climate change.

  • Climate change was mentioned in 27% of broadcast news segments on the Western heat wave and drought

  • Broadcast-Heat-Climate-Coverage-June-2021
  • ABC led the way in connecting coverage of extreme weather in western U.S. to the climate crisis. Five of the network's 18 segments -- 28% -- on the heat wave or drought mentioned climate change. On June 14, ABC meteorologist Ginger Zee linked the heat wave to climate change in two segments on Good Morning America. On the June 15 edition, she linked the megadrought in the West to climate change, noting that “half of the megadrought can be attributed to warming temperatures.” One climate mention came during a heat wave segment on the June 16 edition of Good Morning America, and one in the context of the heat wave on the June 17 edition of World News Tonight to round out ABC’s five climate mentions.

    ABC has traditionally lagged behind its corporate broadcast network counterparts in airing climate coverage, making its reporting on the extreme weather in the West that much more notable.

    CBS aired 17 segments on the Western extreme weather as well, with four of them -- 24% -- mentioning climate change. Three of these mentions came from CBS meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli on the June 17, 18, and 19 editions of CBS This Morning. During Berardelli’s weather report on June 17, he connected both the heat wave and the drought to climate change, stating, “Combined heat and drought is five times more likely now than it was due to human-caused climate change.” The lone climate mention on CBS Evening News came in the context of heat wave reporting of the June 17 edition.

    NBC aired 14 segments on the western extreme weather, and three of them -- 21% -- mentioned climate change. A notable example comes from the June 17 edition of Today, which featured climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who stated, “As climate changes, as the world warms, we’re seeing that our summer extreme heatwaves are getting more frequent, stronger, more intense, and more deadly.” Climate mentions also occurred on the June 17 edition of NBC Nightly News and the June 20 edition of Sunday Today.

    PBS NewsHour aired three segments on the western extreme weather, with two of them mentioning climate change. On the June 14 edition, climate change’s impact on the Western megadrought was mentioned during a story on the G7 nations’ climate pledges. There was also a climate mention in reporting on the heat wave and megadrought on the June 18 edition, with correspondent John Yang stating, “Scientists say climate change has increased the severity of the heat wave and drought. That’s had a devastating impact on agriculture."

    Corporate broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- have historically done a poor job of connecting climate change to extreme heat events. During the summer of 2018, these networks aired 127 segments on a massive heat wave but mentioned climate change only once. In 2019, while CBS did a good job of linking climate change to a July heat wave in its reporting, ABC mentioned climate change only once, and NBC didn’t mention it at all. And last year, the networks failed to do a good job at linking climate change to two separate heat wave events. In June 2020, NBC’s Today was the only corporate broadcast news show to even mention the sweltering hot Arctic temperatures. (PBS, which has traditionally outpaced its nightly news counterparts in climate coverage, was the only network to mention climate change in its Arctic heat reporting.) Later, in July 2020, ABC, CBS, and NBC aired 40 segments on a record-breaking intense heat, and none of them mentioned climate change.

    Despite this encouraging improvement in climate reporting on broadcast TV news during one of the first major extreme weather events of 2021, there were still segments that characterized the extreme weather as climate change without explicitly making the link. One example of this missed opportunity comes from the June 18 edition of Today; the segment contained the following language:

  • This is early to have this much of a heat wave.

    After a week of relentless heat, records were smashed in several western states.

    These summers are just, they're not typical anymore.

    A dangerous late-spring heat wave rewriting record books with millions waiting for relief. Experts say we're likely to have more of these heat waves as the summer progresses.

  • These statements really drive home how massive the recent heat wave in the West really was, and there’s no reason for the words “climate change” to be missing from the segment. It’s scientifically clear that climate change is intensifying these types of extreme heat events -- this information should be included in reporting on these events:

  • Another huge heat wave will hit the Pacific Northwest next week. Can broadcast news outlets further improve upon their climate reporting?

  • A potentially historic and dangerous heat wave is on track to hit the Northwest starting early next week, with major cities like Seattle and Portland likely seeing triple-digit temperatures. What’s worse, many homes in those cities lack air conditioning. Heat waves like these are “one of the clearest manifestations of human-​caused global warming,” and it’s up to all news reporting to accurately report this information to the public.


    Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream database for all original programming for ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ This Morning and Evening News, NBC’s Today and Nightly News, and PBS’ NewsHour for any of the terms “heat,” “heatwave,” “heat wave,” “temperature,” or “drought” within close proximity of either of the terms “climate” or “warming” from June 13 through June 20, 2021.

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when the heat wave or drought were the stated topics of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of either topic. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed either the heat wave or the drought with one another. We did not include passing mentions or teasers.