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Molly Butler / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Corporate broadcast news coverage of Hurricane Delta was silent on climate change

But a handful of cable news programs demonstrated that it’s possible to provide the the kind of strong hurricane coverage viewers want

On Friday, southwest Louisiana was hit for the second time in six weeks by a hurricane. Remarkably, Hurricane Delta was the 10th named storm to hit the continental United State this year, breaking a century-old record. It was also the fourth named storm to strike the already battered coastline of Louisiana this year -- which “ties the record for most landfalls in a single season in Louisiana, set in 2002". In addition, Delta caused a record-breaking storm surge and may “be the fastest storm to spin up from a tropical depression into a Category 4 hurricane” in history.

But perhaps most notable is that it came on the heels of Hurricane Laura and made landfall just 20 miles from where that storm hit just weeks before, resulting in 30 deaths and estimated damages as high as $30 billion.

That Hurricane Delta was record setting and impacted communities still trying to recover from a previous storm are both hallmarks of the climate crisis. But for the most part, corporate television news programs, which across the board repeatedly noted these two points in Delta coverage, did not characterize Hurricane Delta as a climate story.

  • Key findings:

    • Corporate broadcast TV outlets — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 49 segments about Hurricane Delta on their morning and evening news shows from October 9 through October 12.
    • None of the broadcast outlets’ 49 segments on Hurricane Delta mentioned climate change. 
    • Cable news outlets CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC aired a combined 121 segments about Hurricane Delta on their original programming between 4 a.m. EDT and midnight between October 9 through October 12.
    • On cable, only 6 segments -- 5% of them -- mentioned climate change. Four of those segments provided substantive climate discussions.
  • Hurricane Delta’s climate crisis hallmarks

  • Indisputably, climate change is making storms like Delta stronger, wetter, and more destructive. And it is throwing hurricane seasons, like the one this year, into unchartered territory. Hurricane Delta, in particular, is notable for multiple factors: its rapid intensification; its status as the 10th named storm to hit the United States in 2020, the most ever recorded in a single year; and the damage it inflicted on an already battered community.

    In its own right, Delta wrought destructive wind and water on the communities in southwest Louisiana, but the damage both physical and psychological was made far worse by the fact that a category 4 hurricane had just barreled through the area six weeks prior.

    Recovery from Hurricane Laura had barely begun before Delta struck — the piled-up debris from the previous storm turned into dangerous projectiles, and the blue tarps covering thousands of houses provided little cover in the face of 100 mph winds. While this was a storyline throughout both broadcast and cable coverage, only one program, MSNBC Live, contextualized this phenomenon in terms of what the climate crisis means for the future of this region. It also hinted at the question of whether our response and recovery processes are designed to handle compounding climate events.

    On the October 10 edition of MSNBC Live with Yasmin Vossoughian, reporter Cal Perry interviewed a local woman whose house was destroyed in the storm and then contextualized the conversation by saying:

  • CAL PERRY (MSNBC REPORTER): There is the destructive nature of the storms, what they do to the physical houses — there’s now the destructive nature of these storms, what they do to people mentally, emotionally, and during a pandemic, trying to get out of town, not being able to, going to a shelter, worried about getting sick. And then you have the bigger picture, southern Louisiana, these coastlines, is it going to be like this going forward? Is it going to be worse because of climate change? Some people — and we talk about this a lot, you know, climate refugees — well some people, Yasmin, as you can tell, they don’t have anything. They can’t leave here. They’re from here, and they’re going to stay here.

  • It's also notable that during his reporting from Louisiana, Perry wore a mask with warming stripes (“colored stripes that portray a century-plus of global warming at a single glance”).

    The other five cable news programs that mentioned climate change largely responded to the scientific question of whether storms, like Delta, are made worse by climate change -- while the remaining Hurricane Delta coverage treated the storm, for the most part, as an isolated meteorological phenomenon, with more than a few reporters chalking the storm up to bad luck and “2020”.

  • Continuing a troubling trend, corporate broadcast news made no mention of climate change during Hurricane Delta coverage

  • Broadcast Hurricane Delta Climate
  • Broadcast news programs, with some exception, have repeatedly failed to cover the link between our warming planet and increasingly severe hurricanes this year, as in years past.

    Hurricane Delta coverage is part of that troubling trend. A Media Matters analysis found that none of the 49 segments on Hurricane Delta that aired on corporate broadcast TV outlets — ABC, CBS, and NBC — from October 9 through October 12 mentioned climate change.

    The lack of climate change discussion in extreme weather coverage has not gone unnoticed -- a number of critics have called out television news for its poor coverage of both this year’s historic wildfires and hurricanes. For example, Washington Post columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote on September 22 that while climate coverage overall has improved, “underlying climate issues are often absent from quick-hit broadcast segments” on extreme weather events. Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope, writing for The Nation on September 23, also made the point that while exceptional climate reporting exists, it is the exception and not the rule:

  • Despite recent orange skies over the West Coast and fearsome storm surges in the Gulf of Mexico, not to mention the 32 years since NASA scientist James Hansen’s US Senate testimony that man-made global warming had begun, the climate crisis remains a marginal afterthought in most US news coverage.

    No better examples exist than the truly scandalous absence of climate change from most coverage of the wildfires, Hurricane Laura, the Iowa derecho, and countless other extreme weather events of 2020.

  • A Boston Globe op-ed from last month, citing a poll finding that 72% of Americans “say that if there is a connection between an extreme weather event and climate change, they want to hear about it,” pointed out the major disconnect between television news reporting on extreme weather events and the public’s appetite for climate coverage.

    Perhaps in response to this attention, during the October 2 edition of ABC’s Good Morning America, network meteorologist Ginger Zee announced her intention to grapple with the role of climate change in extreme weather events in a new weekly segment, airing on the network’s streaming app, called “It’s Not Too Late.” A weekly segment on “the biggest climate and environment stories of our time” is certainly welcome. However, this type of analysis also needs to be incorporated into coverage of climate events when they are happening and during prime-time coverage. Unfortunately, ABC’s coverage of Delta did not do that — nor did any of the coverage of its corporate broadcast peers.

  • The quality of cable coverage that linked climate and Hurricane Delta was good; the quantity of programs that made the link was poor

  • Cable News Hurricane Delta Climate
  • A Media Matters analysis found that six of the 121 segments on Hurricane Delta that aired on cable TV outlets — CNN, FOX, and MSNBC — from October 9 through October 12 mentioned climate change.

    While cable fared better than broadcast news, that tally — 5% of Hurricane Delta segments mentioning climate change — is still abysmal. That said, four of the six programs that did connect the dots between climate change and Hurricane Delta provided substantive discussions on the issue, in some cases drawing connections and asking questions that are rarely made on cable news.

    For example, the October 9 editions of both CNN Newsroom with Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto and MSNBC Live with Katy Tur addressed the question of whether the storm was an indicator of climate change and dealt with the issue of climate denial and inaction.

    During an interview with Louisiana's Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, CNN anchor Poppy Harlow responded to Nungesser’s comment affirming the role of climate change in this year’s destructive hurricane season by saying:

  • POPPY HARLOW (CNN ANCHOR): There are some Republican leaders who agree with you in Congress, and there are others that don't. The vice president was asked about it this week in the debate. I just wonder what your message is to any leaders in your party who don't believe what you're living through.

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 9, 2020, edition of CNN Newsroom

  • MSNBC’s Katy Tur talked at length with climate scientist Michael Mann about the Trump administration’s obstruction of climate action. Tur kicked off the discussion with this question:

  • KATY TUR (MSNBC ANCHOR): This administration has rolled back a lot of regulations when it comes to fighting climate change. They've taken us out of the Paris climate accord, which will go into effect if Donald Trump wins another term. What are the regulations that have been rolled back? And what do they do in our fight against man-made climate change?

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 9, 2020, edition of MSNBC Live with Katy Tur

  • And like in the CNN segment, Tur also discussed the implications of Vice President Mike Pence’s response on the role of climate change in making storms worse in last week’s vice presidential debate:

  • KATY TUR (MSNBC ANCHOR): I think a lot of people will remember a couple nights ago on the debate stage Vice President Mike Pence saying -- or claiming -- that NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that there were no more storms now than there used to be. Can you put that into, you know, reality for us, into science for us?

  • Coverage of climate-fueled Hurricanes should not happen in a vacuum

  • As Harlow and Tur and others have well-demonstrated, Hurricane Delta did not happen in a vacuum. Climate-fueled events should be discussed in the context of larger climate signals and connected to actions that respond to or exacerbate the climate crisis. 

    In this case, coverage should put storms like Delta into context with the global climate crisis, which too few do. As vanden Heuvel aptly summarized in her Washington Post column:

  • New catastrophes lead to spikes in coverage. But sometimes media outlets appear to have climate amnesia: Journalists forget to link the latest incidents to the overall threats, and in the periods between coverage spikes, the story goes largely unmentioned.

  • Media should also attempt to put extreme weather in conversation with other critical discussions such as the role of climate denial and inaction in accelerating the crisis, which a few programs did well. But again, going forward, this level of reporting needs to be the rule, not the exception.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq and SnapStream video database services for any of the terms “hurricane,” “storm,” or “Delta" (including misspellings) on ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, World News Saturday, and World News Sunday; CBS This Morning, CBS This Morning: Saturday, CBS Weekend News, and CBS Evening News; NBC’s Today (including the third hour), Sunday Today, and Nightly News; and on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC from 4 a.m. to midnight each day from October 9 through October 12.

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

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