Climate coverage is improving, but challenges abound heading into 2020
Climate journalism had a breakout year in 2019
Marked by innovative initiatives and high-quality reporting, 2019 was a breakout year for climate journalism. But there is still work to be done. Broadcast and cable TV news are still greatly underreporting catastrophic extreme weather, failing to cover the crisis on the Sunday shows, and ceding discussion of proposed climate solutions to right-wing media.
But the efforts of climate activists, scientists, and journalists have helped to raise public awareness of the climate crisis and pushed the media to do a better job reporting on the threat of climate change and potential solutions to the crisis. Below are some examples that point the way toward a future of stronger climate coverage and identify the obstacles that could hold it back.
2019 saw in-depth series that explored traditionally undercovered climate issues
Issues such as potential solutions to climate change and environmental justice too often are undercovered by news outlets. But new series launched by NBC News, The Guardian and The Washington Post aimed to tackle these issues with the depth they deserve and pointed the way toward journalism that tells broader stories about the climate crisis.
NBC News created a new unit dedicated to covering the climate crisis on a global scale
In September, NBC News, MSNBC, Telemundo, and NBC News Digital debuted a new climate unit that reported for a weeklong series called “Climate in Crisis.” Starting September 15, this unit covered how climate change has harmed Greenland, how the Trump administration ignored its own research showing climate change fueling Central American migration, and how scientists from Iceland have pioneered cutting-edge carbon capture and storage methods.
The Guardian launched “Our Unequal Earth,” a yearlong series on environmental justice
In October, The Guardian hired a dedicated environmental justice reporter, Nina Lakhani, for its U.S. edition and launched a yearlong series titled “Our Unequal Earth” to investigate “how ecological hazards and climate disasters have the harshest impacts on people of color, native tribes and those on low incomes.”
The series has published stories about how Alaskans are working to save the Tongass National Forest, how one of the largest urban farming movements in the country is improving the lives of residents in Cleveland, Ohio, and how the indigenous tribes of South Dakota are struggling with the negative health consequences of environmental racism.
The Washington Post highlighted potential solutions to the climate crisis with “Climate Solutions”
With its new series, “Climate Solutions,” The Washington Post has dedicated its considerable journalistic resources, including “strong reporting and writing as well as striking photography, videography and graphics,” to telling stories about “individuals, companies and other organizations that are exploring ways to address our most significant environmental problems.”
Launched in November, the series has already tackled how green initiatives in Denmark may enable Copenhagen to become the first carbon-neutral city by 2025, how scientists are taking radical approaches to growing and planting new coral in reef structures in Florida and the Caribbean, and how an Israeli company is working to revolutionize recycling.
2019 saw an innovative model that points toward the future of climate journalism
Covering Climate Now, an initiative that comprises hundreds of media outlets committed to improving their climate journalism, provided an innovative model of how news outlets can collaborate and report on the climate crisis with the sustained attention and urgency the issue deserves.
To assist partners in meeting the goal of publishing as many good climate stories as possible during the week leading up to the September 23 United Nations climate summit, lead media partner The Guardian and 184 other media outlets provided free, high-quality climate content that resulted in more than 1,000 climate stories reprinted or rebroadcast.
By making the content free, news outlets that may not typically produce climate stories were able to bring high-quality climate journalism to their audiences. This unique, collaborative effort showed how larger news outlets can help level the playing field for outlets with fewer resources and less expertise on climate issues. During this period, many outlets were able to move beyond typical climate reporting to produce stories about communities that are largely ignored.
Some of these stories included a Charleston Gazette-Mail article about how climate change will result in more intense rains for West Virginia and what that means for the state, while a DCist story focused on how climate change and environmental injustice will disproportionately harm historically Black neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.
Other notable articles included The Philadelphia Inquirer’s reporting on how climate change is hurting Philadelphia residents, while The Seattle Times published a piece on how climate change will threaten the health of people in the Pacific Northwest.
Covering Climate Now’s focus on having its partners publish as many good climate stories as they could from September 15-22 may also have helped amplify awareness of the September 20 global climate strikes, which saw up to 4 million people participate in what may be the largest climate protest in history. In a rare event, the broadcast networks all reported on a climate-focused story on the same day: The morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as PBS NewsHour, devoted time to covering the strikes on September 20.
Print media also reported extensively on the strikes, with 36 of the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation featuring a story about the strikes on the front page of their print editions on September 21, the day after they began.
2019 saw improved coverage of the climate crisis
While innovation plays a role in driving broader and more substantive climate coverage, news outlets can immediately improve their climate reporting by connecting the dots between our warming world and extreme weather events, telling the stories of those already impacted by the climate crisis and environmental racism, and informing the public about potential solutions that could mitigate global warming’s worst effects. The segments below are a few examples of journalists hitting these marks.
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes hosted a town hall about the Green New Deal with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Introduced in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), the Green New Deal is the most consequential piece of climate legislation in years. While the nightly news shows’ virtual silence on the legislation was stunning, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes hosted a well-received town hall with Ocasio-Cortez in March specifically to discuss the plan.
From the March 30 episode of All In with Chris Hayes:
NBC’s Al Roker went to Alaska to show how climate change is harming communities right now
In April, NBC host and weather anchor Al Roker traveled to Utqiagvik, Alaska, to examine how climate change is affecting the lives of the community. According to Alaska’s Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development:
Every new day brings with it new evidence of climate change in Alaskan communities – warmer, record breaking temperatures have resulted in thawing permafrost, thinning sea ice, and increasing wildfires. These changes have resulted in a reduction of subsistence harvests, an increase in flooding and erosion, concerns about water and food safety and major impacts to infrastructure: including damage to buildings, roads and airports.
Roker’s reporting allowed viewers to get a firsthand account of how climate change is drastically impacting one of our most vulnerable states and what the climate crisis portends for us all.
From the April 1 episode of Today:
CBS showed how to push back on climate denial
During a June interview on CBS This Morning, co-host Tony Dokoupil asked Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) how he planned to address climate change, which is endangering his home state of Louisiana. In response, Scalise spouted climate denial talking points, which Dokoupil effectively rebutted.
From the June 14 edition of CBS This Morning:
CNN examined how environmental racism harms communities of color
TV news rarely center stories of minority and low-income communities which are most at risk from the climate crisis and environmental racism. But a story that aired on CNN’s New Day in May was a rare exception to this unfortunate trend. Traveling to Port Arthur, Texas, home to the nation’s largest oil refinery and site of some of the most cataclysmic flooding in American history, CNN’s chief climate correspondent Bill Weir demonstrated that cable news is capable of giving environmental justice the substantive attention it demands by simply listening to the concerns of the people who live there.
From the May 29 episode of CNN’s New Day:
CNN and MSNBC hosted well-received presidential forums devoted entirely to the climate crisis
After the Democratic National Committee officially rejected calls for a dedicated climate debate from a coalition of environmental and progressive groups, both CNN and MSNBC announced that they would host separate climate forums in September.
CNN’s marathon September 4 forum on climate change is considered the most comprehensive discussion of climate policy in television history. Over seven hours, 10 Democratic presidential candidates discussed how they would approach the challenges of the climate crisis. Although the hosts did lapse into problematic framing at times, reactions to the forum from climate and media experts were generally positive. For example, climate scientist Michael Mann called it “a full evening of informed, detailed climate change conversation,” while Time magazine climate reporter Justin Worland noted that it “feels remarkable to see 7 hours of largely substantive talk on CNN where science is taken as a given and candidates face good questions about solutions.”
MSNBC’s two-day climate forum on September 19 and 20 featured 11 Democratic candidates and one Republican and was a rare nod to youth activist groups that have been calling for political parties and media outlets to prioritize the climate crisis in the 2020 campaign cycle. MSNBC hosts Ali Velshi and Chris Hayes moderated the well-regarded forum.
2019 saw other laudable climate forums with presidential candidates. The Weather Channel aired one such event on November 7 titled “2020: Race to Save the Planet.” And on November 8, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators joined with approximately two dozen national and local organizations to sponsor a historic forum dedicated to environmental justice titled “Moving Vulnerable Communities from Surviving to Thriving.”
Without these forums, among others, the public would have been hard-pressed to see the candidates discuss the climate crisis with some substance in 2019 -- the presidential primary debate moderators have largely given climate change short shrift.
Despite these highlights, mainstream news outlets faced significant challenges
The above examples show that mainstream news outlets can do a good job on climate when they’re so inclined. But there were a few challenges in 2019 that the media will have to address as the climate crisis garners increasing public and political attention in the future:
Allowing conservative and right-wing media to frame the narrative around the climate crisis
Whether it is an ambitious climate policy or a principled young activist, the right-wing mediasphere, often led by Fox News, is always ready, willing, and able to smear and distort policies and people alike. And this situation is exacerbated by the relative silence of more mainstream news outlets, effectively letting Fox and other bad actors dictate the terms of the debate.
For example, after the Green New Deal resolution was released on February 7, not only did Fox News air far more prime-time segments about the legislation than MSNBC or CNN from February 7-11, but less than half of the network’s segments even mentioned the climate crisis. Instead, Fox aired several segments that lied about proposals in the Green New Deal and tried to paint it as an instance of alleged Democratic extremism.
The next month, Fox hyped a deeply flawed analysis of the Green New Deal produced by the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank.
The network was also not afraid to wage deeply personal smear campaigns against vocal proponents of climate action such as Ocasio-Cortez and Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Unfortunately, not only were mainstream TV news outlets mostly silent during these dishonest right-wing attacks, but they sometimes adopted conservative framing of the climate crisis. This happened during CNN's two-night Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit on July 30 and 31 and during CNN’s September 4 climate forum.
Refusing to treat the climate crisis as an urgent issue with political solutions
Because of their wide viewership and political prestige, Sunday news shows play a crucial role in determining which issues and voices are included in the national dialogue. Unfortunately, the climate crisis was rarely treated with the urgency it demanded in 2019. Not only did the shows routinely fail to report on climate consequences such as extreme weather and the Trump administration’s harmful environmental rollbacks, but when they did discuss climate, it was often through a narrow political lens.
Failing to consistently connect the science of climate change to extreme weather events
By far the most important challenge for mainstream news media is overcoming their ongoing failure to produce consistent, substantive reporting connecting the science of climate change to its rapidly unfolding consequences. While 2019 marked an important shift in climate coverage, many of the largest outlets in print, broadcast, and cable news still hesitate to connect the dots between our warming world and extreme weather events, and they rarely treat the climate crisis with the urgency it deserves.
To build on the encouraging momentum from 2019, more news outlets must commit to shared, sustained, and substantive reporting that not only details the science behind the current and future consequences of the climate crisis, but also informs the public about potential solutions that could mitigate global warming’s worst effects.