2020 Heat Wave
Melissa Joskow

Research/Study Research/Study

Corporate broadcast TV news fails to connect extreme heat to climate, COVID-19, or racial injustice

This summer’s extreme heat is more than a meteorological phenomenon

  • For the past several weeks, prolonged and oppressive heat across large swaths of the continental U.S. has been breaking heat records, putting millions of Americans at risk for heat-related illnesses, exacerbating the response and spread of COVID-19, and further exposing the disproportionate impact extreme weather has on communities of color. Unfortunately, major broadcast TV networks are overwhelmingly failing to report on the links between the climate crisis, extreme weather, and environmental justice.

    Media Matters analyzed one week of broadcast TV news coverage from July 12 to July 19 and found that ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 40 segments that discussed the heat wave on their nightly and morning news programs. The vast majority of mentions appeared during the networks’ weather forecasts, but none of these segments connected extreme heat to climate change. Additionally, only three segments mentioned the heat in relation to COVID-19, and none explored the fact that extreme heat is disproportionately impacting minority communities.

    The occurrence of widespread and intense heat waves has become more common due to our increasingly warming climate. In 2018, a massive and powerful heat dome shattered hundreds of records and killed at least five people in the U.S. Last year, a major heat wave impacted close to one-third of the population, set numerous one-day temperature records, and claimed at least six lives. But the difference between then and now is that the U.S. was not in the throes of a pandemic, nor was the country reckoning with its long history of racial injustice and economic inequality. This summer, the intersection of these events have brought into sharp relief those who are the most vulnerable to extreme weather events and the reasons why.

  • Broadcast networks completely ignored the link between the climate crisis and heat waves

  • Between July 12 and July 19, morning and evening news shows on the three major broadcast television networks aired 40 segments on the current heat wave. Climate change was not mentioned in any of these segments.

    Broken down by network, ABC aired 20 segments, NBC aired 19, and CBS aired only one. Thirty-six out of these 40 total segments -- 90% of them -- came in the context of a simple weather report. ABC News chief meteorologist Ginger Zee’s report on the July 17 edition of Good Morning America is a typical example of this:

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    Citation From the July 17, 2020, edition of ABC's Good Morning America

  • Heat waves are of course extreme weather, so it makes sense for the vast majority of mentions to come in the context of a weather report. However, heat waves such as the current one are becoming more common and more intense due to climate change. They are also becoming more dangerous, increasing the risk of heat-related illnesses for those with chronic conditions, especially the young and the elderly.

    When taken into account that the planet just had the hottest June on record (tied with 2019) and that 2020 may go down as the hottest year in recorded history, it is clear that heat waves such as this one are no longer just an issue for a simple weather report. They are a public health issue, and they are a climate issue.

    It is difficult for broadcast television networks to even recognize in their news reports that 2020 is on pace for record warming. Fortunately, co-anchor Al Roker on the July 14 edition of NBC’s Today did make reference to this:

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    Citation From the July 14, 2020, edition of NBC's Today

  • (While Roker did correctly point out the record-high temperatures across the world in June, the climate mention did not count in our database because it was not about the current July heat wave.)

    Climate silence on the heat wave follows a shameful trend for the major broadcast television networks. Last summer during a period between July 15 and July 22, 2019, ABC mentioned climate change in the context of heat wave reporting only once, while NBC didn’t mention it at all (CBS led the broadcast news coverage with four mentions). And during a two-week heat wave in 2018, only one out of 127 overall segments mentioned climate change.

  • The July heat wave is exacerbating the response and spread of COVID-19 across the country

  • The networks are missing another reporting angle in the context of this heat wave: It is complicating efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, which has already killed over 137,000 people in the U.S. For example, recent research shows that indoor air conditioners, which will no doubt be in use during the heat wave, may actually facilitate the spread of the coronavirus. Testing sites in some parts of the country are also closing down due to the heat, all while throngs of Americans defy social distancing guidelines in order to hit the beaches.

    Those with underlying conditions and the elderly are most likely to be adversely affected by the coronavirus, just as they are more likely to be at risk of heat-related illnesses due to the heat wave. People of color are also disproportionately affected by both the coronavirus and the heat wave. These are all important pieces of information that can accompany related news reports.

    Unfortunately, the specific links between the heat wave and the coronavirus were only mentioned in three out of the 40 segments on broadcast television, once each on CBS Evening News, NBC’s Nightly News and ABC’s World News Tonight. (CBS’ only mention of the heat wave was during this segment.)

    The July 12 edition of CBS Evening News noted the spread of both positive coronavirus tests and rising temperatures. The segment was largely about the coronavirus outbreak, with some information sprinkled in about the heat wave:

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    Citation From the July 12, 2020, edition of CBS Evening News

  • NBC Nightly News mention, also from July 12, reported on rising COVID-19 infection rates across the country and noted that “summer temperatures have actually made things worse in a lot of places.” Meanwhile, ABC's World News Tonight mention from July 14 noted that the hot temperatures are making the fight against the coronavirus “more brutal.” Aside from these few segments, the double threat of climate-fueled heat waves and rising positive tests for the coronavirus was largely ignored by news broadcasts on the major broadcast television networks.

  • Extreme heat disproportionately impacts communities of color

  • Extreme heat is also disproportionately impacting communities of color and other vulnerable populations. But not one broadcast news program made this connection even though they reported almost daily over a week-long period on the record-breaking extreme heat that has scorched communities across the country.

    Systemic racism has left people of color more vulnerable to extreme heat because they are more likely to live in neighborhoods and homes where the urban heat island effect is strongest. A recent study found that racist housing policies like redlining have left communities of color at greater risk of extreme heat:

  • With fewer shade-providing trees, parks and other green spaces, and a high density of heat-trapping concrete buildings and asphalt roads, these neighborhoods tend to retain more heat. The study found that redlined neighborhoods were 5 degrees F hotter on average than other neighborhoods in the same city.

  • In Phoenix, where temperatures reached a record 116 degrees on July 12, The Washington Post reported that the combination of heat islands and climate change is threatening Black, Latino, and low-income communities more than those in wealthier communities.

  • By 2050, climate change will make the city’s summers look more like those in Baghdad, according to a study published last year in the journal PLOS One. The city is projected to experience more than two dozen additional “dangerous” days when the heat index is above 105 degrees (these conditions are already felt for about four months of the year). Heat waves will lengthen, and summertime droughts will become far more severe.

  • Extreme heat is a racial justice issue and one that has been compounded by COVID-19, which has also unfairly impacted communities of color.

    In a recent op-ed in The Boston Globe, Reann Gibson, a senior research fellow at the Conservation Law Foundation, noted, “Like COVID-19, severe heat waves are not an ‘equal opportunity’ health threat. The most disinvested neighborhoods — those dominated by buildings, pavement, and parking lots — are hit the hardest.” Gibson pointed out: “That’s not an accident. It’s the result of decades-old racist policies and current development practices.”

    Amid nationwide protests for racial justice, the broadcast news’ failure to report on this extensive heat wave as more than just a weather event is not just short-sighted. It is a missed opportunity for these networks to expose the multiple ways that systemic racism threatens communities of color.

  • Extreme heat is more than a weather event

  • It’s past time for broadcast news to stop reporting on extreme heat as just temperatures on map.

    Each year, heat kills more Americans than all other extreme weather events combined. Last year, there were “197 fatalities from heat-related causes” in just Phoenix and the surrounding county.

    Extreme heat, especially during the pandemic, is increasingly becoming a public health emergency. And it’s already a brutal harbinger of the climate crisis.

    In June, a small Siberian town hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit -- the highest-ever recorded temperature in the Arctic Circle -- as part of an ongoing heat wave in the region that has significant and disturbing global implications. Broadcast news was nearly silent on this event, as only one program across the networks covered it. During a June 22 segment on NBC’s Today, meteorologist Bill Karins mentioned the temperature in a short segment, stating, “This is a weather event. This isn’t a climate event. But climate change makes weather extremes like this more likely, and it makes them worse.”

    A study released last week by a team of international scientists found that the Siberian heat wave, including the record-breaking temperature, was very much a “climate event.” In fact, the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, found that climate change made the region's prolonged heat wave “at least 600 times” more likely and would have been “effectively impossible without human influence,” according to lead author Andrew Ciavarella.

    More and more, these major heat events are sending clear signals of our dangerously warming planet; taking a tremendous and even lethal toll on communities; and exacerbating preexisting crises and systemic inequalities. Last month, Media Matters called out broadcast news for its history of shallow extreme weather coverage, noting the harms done by the choice of reporting these events as isolated meteorological phenomena:

  • This has resulted in national coverage of extreme weather that largely disconnects these events from the climate crisis; allows systemic failures and the racial and economic inequalities exposed by these events to go unchallenged; casts communities that are often hit year after year by climate disasters as helpless victims; and lets those who have failed to mitigate impacts and injustices go unaccountable.

  • With more excessive heat on the horizon, broadcast news must start telling these stories.


    Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on ABC's Good Morning America and World News Tonight; CBS' This Morning and Evening News; and NBC's Today and Nightly News for any variation of either of the terms “temperature” or “degree” in close proximity of either of the terms “hot” or “heat” or any variation of the term “heat wave” from July 12 through 19, 2020. We counted segments, which included any reference to the heat wave in a news broadcast. We did not include teasers.