April 22 marked the 51st anniversary of Earth Day. It also kicked off a two-day virtual climate summit hosted by President Joe Biden, in which 40 world leaders discussed plans to take action on climate change. The combination of the climate summit and the general Earth Day commemoration led to substantial climate and environmental-related coverage on major broadcast and cable TV networks.
Corporate broadcast TV morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 26 climate and environmental segments across 82 minutes on Earth Day. Original programming on CNN and MSNBC aired a combined 38 segments across 186 minutes -- just over three hours. (The other major cable network, Fox, spent all of Earth Day attacking actions taken to address climate change.)
Morning and nightly news shows on corporate broadcast TV networks aired a whopping 26 climate and environment-related segments on Earth Day
Morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 26 climate and environment-related segments across 82 minutes on Earth Day. Last year, these broadcast networks did a pretty poor job with their Earth Day coverage, airing only nine such segments across morning and nightly news shows. Additionally, most of these segments promoted the dangerous idea that the coronavirus pandemic is somehow a “silver lining” for short-term air quality around the globe.
But this year, the coverage spanned a range of climate and environment-related issues, impacts, and solutions. Not every segment hit the mark, and some of the programming was marred by the promotion of fringe and false solutions. But on the whole, broadcast news networks produced coverage that articulated the urgency and scale of the climate crisis and facilitated discussions on what can be done to address it.
Additionally, the 82 minutes of coverage on Earth Day is notable when compared to the pitiful job that broadcast TV programs did covering climate change in all of 2020. There were 336 minutes -- over 5 and a half hours -- of total climate coverage on the morning and nightly news shows in 2020. So the 82 minutes of coverage on Earth Day alone in 2021 represents nearly a quarter of all climate coverage in 2020.
NBC aired 10 segments on climate and environment-related issues on Earth Day -- with the vast majority (8) appearing on the Today show. Four Today segments featured live discussions with NBC weather anchor Al Roker and engineer Bill Nye talking about climate and environmental issues. One such example included both of them riding a tram car and discussing the importance of clean air.
Another excellent Earth Day segment came during the third hour of Today, and it included an interview with marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and writer Katharine K. Wilkinson about the importance of women’s voices in the climate movement. Considering that in 2020, only 26% of guests featured in corporate broadcast TV climate coverage were women, the segment was a much-needed step in the right direction.
CBS also aired 10 segments on climate and environmental issues, with 8 of them airing on CBS This Morning. In fact, most of the second hour of CBS This Morning was devoted to Earth Day programming with six segments -- a rarity in TV news. This environment-specific programming helped showcase CBS’ commitment to the Covering Climate Now initiative that aims to produce more climate change coverage. Some of the notable segments included two back-to-back interviews with youth climate activists, one with Greta Thunberg and one with Julianna Bradley and Georgia Wright.
Another notable segment came on CBS Evening News, which ran two Earth Day-related segments. This included a segment on how climate change is affecting the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. and may threaten nearby monuments. This exemplifies the type of localized storytelling that can resonate with audiences in a way global stories may not.
ABC aired six segments on climate and environmental issues on Earth Day, with three each coming on Good Morning America and World News Tonight. Notable examples include Good Morning America’s nearly six-minute segment on climate change’s effects on Lake Michigan and a World News Tonight segment on climate change’s role in people immigrating from Latin America to the U.S.
Additionally, we also examined coverage of public broadcaster PBS' nightly news show PBS NewsHour. NewsHour, which historically has done a better job of climate coverage than its corporate broadcast counterparts, aired three climate and environment-related segments on Earth Day across 18 minutes. The most notable one included a lengthy interview with climate scientist Michael Mann on the feasibility of the U.S.’ climate goals.
Notably for CBS, NBC, and PBS, the climate and environment-related coverage wasn’t limited to just Earth Day. All week, these networks participated in the Covering Climate Now initiative. For example, on April 19, NBC Today aired an interview with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, and NBC Nightly News host Lester Holt reported on climate challenges from Houston. The same day, CBS This Morning aired a segment on the oceans’ role in the climate crisis; later that night, CBS Evening News ran a segment on a green jobs boom in Texas. PBS NewsHour aired segments on sustainable aviation fuel on April 20 and solar power in Florida on April 13.
It is worth noting that while most of the week’s climate coverage by broadcast TV networks was of good quality, it wasn’t all exemplary. For example, NBC Nightly News aired an April 18 segment on a carbon capture project in Iceland and the prospects of a similar project being successful in the U.S. It did not touch upon the false promise of carbon-sucking technologies.
CNN and MSNBC aired numerous segments on the Biden climate summit
CNN and MSNBC generally produced solid, all-day reporting on Biden’s climate summit on Earth Day. Combined, the two networks aired 37 climate and environmental-related segments across 183 minutes -- just over three hours.
MSNBC aired 21 segments across nearly two hours (116 minutes) during its original programming on Earth Day. Most of this programming focused on Biden’s climate summit, and some segments were notable for the knowledgeable guests that the network brought on to talk about the issue.
One example comes from The Rachel Maddow Show, where host Rachel Maddow interviewed White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy to discuss the climate summit and the U.S. climate plans in general. McCarthy also referenced environmental justice in the segment, which is a rarity on TV networks.
On MTP Daily, University of California - Santa Barbara Assistant Professor of Political Science Leah Stokes spoke with host Chuck Todd about, among other things, the need for a national clean-electricity standard.
Other notable segments included Craig Melvin’s interview with climate activist Jamie Margolin on MSNBC Live with Craig Melvin, in which Margolin stressed the need for the media to do a better job of covering climate change in the context of other big issues, including the coronavirus; a Katy Tur Reports segment with climate scientist Michael Mann and engineer Bill Nye discussing Biden’s climate summit; and an excellent opening monologue by Chris Hayes on All In with Chris Hayes that discussed Biden’s goal to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030.
CNN aired 17 climate and environment-related segments across 70 minutes on Earth Day. Like MSNBC, most of them also centered around the climate summit.
On Inside Politics, CNN chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins and Stanford University climate scientist Rob Jackson spoke with anchor John King on the summit and its implications for climate change in a nearly 11-minute segment.
CNN chief climate correspondent Bill Weir also appeared in several climate segments throughout the network’s programming to speak on the climate summit and the climate solutions necessary for achieving Biden’s climate goals. In one segment on The Lead with Jake Tapper, Weir spoke with NASA’s Gavin Schmidt and Earth Day Initiative’s John Oppermann about the promise of renewable energy.
CNN didn’t limit its climate coverage to just Earth Day. On April 23, the network hosted an hour-long climate change town hall with several Biden administration officials. This was the first climate-specific town hall that the network held since September 2019.
It’s rare that climate change is covered so much in one day across news networks. It should be happening every day
This year’s Earth Day coverage showed that TV news networks can cover climate and environmental issues with the quality and quantity that the issues deserve. It’s rare that it happens, though. Biden’s executive orders on climate change in late January did receive ample news coverage across major news programs, as did Trump’s comments on September 14 last year on devastating wildfires in California.
Given the scale of the crisis and the fact that the world is still on track to exceed 1.5 degrees celsius of warming, it is imperative that news networks treat climate change as the crisis it is and not address it just on special days like Earth Day.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream and Kinetiq video databases for all original programming on CNN and MSNBC; the national morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC; and PBS’ NewsHour for any of the terms “Earth Day,” “global warming,” or “climate” on April 22, 2021.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when environmental or climate issues were the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of environmental or climate issues. We defined significant discussion as two or more speakers discussing environmental or climate issues with one another. We rounded all times to the nearest minute and all percentages to the nearest whole.