Over the long Labor Day weekend, an explosive fire in the Sierra Nevada and record-shattering heat accelerated the climate crisis unfolding in California. The fires this season have already burned more acres than during any other year on record — and there are still several months left in the fire season.
The wildfire media coverage over the three-day weekend and into Tuesday included horrifying images, footage, and accounts from those on the ground, and awestruck reporters onsite and in studios casting around for language that properly conveys the scope and magnitude of what is happening in California. But the ample coverage has failed, with some exception, to tell the story of why it is happening, including the role our overheated planet has played in intensifying the wildfires.
A Media Matters analysis found that the vast majority of corporate TV news coverage from September 5 through September 8 ignored the relationship between climate change and California’s wildfires. That’s part of a troubling trend, and it comes on the heels of an analysis that found that only 4% of broadcast news wildfire coverage during the month of August mentioned climate change.
- Corporate broadcast TV outlets — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 46 news and weather segments about wildfires on their morning and evening news shows from September 5 through September 8.
- Seven of the 46 wildfire segments -- 15% of them -- mentioned climate change. However, four of the seven mentions were made by one reporter, CBS meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli.
- PBS Newshour outperformed the corporate network programs, making the connection between the intense fires and climate change in both of the wildfire segments it aired.
Climate change is fueling extreme weather and historic wildfires
The wildfires that ignited in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere in California this past weekend contributed to the now-record 2 million-plus acres that have burned in the state. The rapidly moving Creek Fire, which quickly surrounded hikes and campers, has burned over 150,000 acres since it was sparked on Friday evening — and the fire is 0% contained. Record-breaking temperatures and tinder-dry forests, made worse by climate change, are intensifying these fires.
The connection between climate change and California’s wildfires is inextricable, and as Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told The New York Times, it’s not complicated:
“This climate change connection is straightforward: Warmer temperatures dry out fuels,” he said. “In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark.”
“In pretty much every single way, a perfect recipe for fire is just kind of written in California,” Dr. Williams said. “Nature creates the perfect conditions for fire, as long as people are there to start the fires. But then climate change, in a few different ways, seems to also load the dice toward more fire in the future.”
Unfortunately, these facts and straightforward explanations about extreme heat and wildfires have not convinced broadcast news networks to mention climate change consistently in their coverage of these extreme weather events.
Only 15% of wildfire coverage on corporate broadcast TV news mentioned climate change
From September 5 through September 8, morning and evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC collectively aired 46 segments on the California wildfires. Seven of these wildfire segments, or 15%, mentioned climate change.
This is a marked improvement from wildfire coverage in the month of August, when only 4% of wildfire segments on broadcast programs made the connection to climate change. However, given the magnitude of these fires, the clear climate-change fingerprints on them, and the fact that there is still no federal response to this crisis, the increase to 15% still amounts to journalistic malpractice.
Of the seven climate change mentions over the four-day period beginning September 5, six appeared on CBS programs. The other mention appeared on NBC’s Today. None of ABC’s 19 segments on the wildfires in California mentioned climate change.
Notably, four of the six climate mentions on CBS were made by the network’s meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli.
On the September 5 edition of CBS This Morning: Saturday, Berardelli reported that the heat dome over the West was made worse by climate change, which is drying out the brush, before noting: “Three of the four biggest fires in the history of California -- think about that -- are burning right now.”
On the September 6 edition of CBS Weekend News, Berardelli said of the heat event intensifying the wildfires, “Climate change took a run-of-the-mill heat wave and it made it into a remarkable heat wave.”
On the September 7 edition of CBS This Morning, he called the heat wave “insane,” later adding that “all of the extremes that we’re seeing now is what climate change does — it takes an ordinary situation and it makes it extraordinary.”
On the September 8 edition of CBS This Morning, Berardelli concluded his report on the extreme weather and fast-moving fires by stating, “The bottom line here is if we do not combat climate change and take it seriously, this is going to be the rule in the future, not the exception.”
NBC’s only mention came during the September 8 edition of Today. Weather anchor Al Roker gave context to the historic fires by noting, “We have more than 2 million acres burned, a new state record. The second-, third-, and fourth-largest fires ever are burning right now. And because of climate change, five times more area has burned since 1972. Wildfire season is two to three months longer."
PBS NewHour provides model for wildfire reporting
During the four-day period analyzed by Media Matters, PBS Newshour ran two segments on the wildfires in California. Both of the network’s segments mentioned climate change. The September 7 edition of PBS Newshour included an interview with Leah Stokes, professor and researcher on climate, energy, and political policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was specifically dedicated to illustrating the link between climate change and California's wildfires. In addition to explaining the climate connection to the existing wildfires, Stokes tied the wildfires to the burning of fossil fuels and the urgent need for climate action — an essential connection that is rarely made on broadcast news coverage of California’s wildfires:
I have only lived in California for five years, and I have already been evacuated from my home for weeks on end. And what scientists are telling us is that we are entering a period of mega-fires, where the scale of burning is just beyond what we have seen before.
So, as you mentioned, we're seeing really large fires. And there isn't any reason to believe that that will stop, because we are not taking the climate crisis seriously, and we are not reducing fossil fuel emissions around the world.
So, California really is the canary in the coal mine here, and we need to be waking up. And just as the bird was dying from coal, we too are dying from burning coal, oil and fossil gas.
The September 8 edition of PBS Newshour included coverage of a press conference held by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, in which Newsom stated: “I quite literally have no patience for climate change deniers. It simply follows — completely inconsistent, that point of view, with the reality on the ground.” PBS Newshour was the only broadcast news program to cover Newsom’s remarks challenging those who still deny the existence of human-caused climate change.
It’s not surprising that PBS Newshour covered the wildfire as a climate event. The program regularly outpaces its corporate broadcast counterparts in climate reporting, including connecting climate change to extreme weather events. It consistently shows not only that you can make the connection, but that you can make it well, with the scope and depth the topic deserves.
CBS’ Jeff Berardelli is responsible for the vast majority of climate mentions on broadcast news
This is not the first time that CBS’ Jeff Berardelli, who connected climate change to wildfires four times over a four-day period, has outperformed his colleagues on climate reporting. Our analysis on wildfire coverage over the course of one month in August found that three of the five climate mentions that appeared during that time were made by Berardelli.
In addition to his on-air reports, Berardelli uses other CBS News platforms and his Twitter account to expand on and educate people about the connections between climate and specific extreme weather events.
It is also worth noting that Al Roker, who was responsible for his network's climate mention in this analysis and the August wildfire coverage study that preceded it, has also consistently used his weather segments to educate viewers about the relationship between extreme weather and climate change.
But Berardelli and Roker — and PBS Newshour — can no longer be the exception to extreme weather coverage. Their consistent reporting on the links between what we are experiencing and the climate we’ve overheated must become the rule. They show that connecting the dots between extreme weather and climate change can be done, and the urgency of this crisis reflected in the increasingly deadly events in places like California demand that it must be done.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq and SnapStream video database services for any variations of the terms “wildfire,”“fire,” or “heat” 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; and NBC’s Today, Sunday Today, and Nightly News from September 5 through September 8, 2020. We included the third hour of NBC’s Today show. In addition to analyzing climate change coverage on the corporate broadcast networks, we examined coverage on public broadcaster PBS' weekday nightly news show, PBS NewsHour.
We counted as segments when the California wildfires were the stated topic of discussion, where there was “significant discussion” of the California wildfires, or where there were mentions of the state’s heat wave within the context of a weather report. We defined “significant discussion” as instances where two or more speakers engaged in a back-and-forth on the topic. We did not count teasers, passing mentions, or headline news rundowns, which are brief and typically occur in the very beginning of a news show, at the top of the hour, or at the half-hour mark. We then searched within those results to determine whether a segment mentioned climate change.