Hurricane Zeta was the latest climate-fueled storm in a record-shattering  season. But corporate broadcast TV news mentioned climate change only once during its coverage.
Audrey Bowler / Media Matter

Research/Study Research/Study

Corporate broadcast TV news mentioned climate change only once during its coverage of Hurricane Zeta

A Media Matters analysis found that over a 48-hour period from October 28-29, during which Hurricane Zeta made landfall in southeast Louisiana before ripping through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, corporate broadcast morning and evening TV news shows rarely connected the storm to climate change. In fact, the only climate mention during coverage of the storm came during a single weather forecast on NBC.

  • Key findings

    • Corporate broadcast TV outlets — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 30 segments about Hurricane Zeta during morning and evening news programs from October 28-29.
    • Only one broadcast news segment referenced climate change during its Zeta coverage, in a weather forecast that aired on the October 29 episode of NBC’s Today.
  • Corporate TV news’ segments about Hurricane Zeta rarely mentioned climate change

  • As large swaths of the Gulf Coast struggle to recover from a record-breaking hurricane season, which has included weathering three major storms -- Hurricanes Delta, Laura, and Sally -- within 8 weeks, Hurricane Zeta roared onto the southeast Louisiana shore on October 28, killing six people and leaving nearly 2 million without power. And, similar to those other major storms, Zeta exhibited clear signals of being amplified by climate change.

    Zeta rapidly intensified on Wednesday, making landfall as a Category 2 storm and approaching Category 3. According to Yale Climate Connections, climate science shows a clear pattern underpinning rapid intensification of recent hurricanes:

  • Unfortunately, not only is human-caused climate change making the strongest hurricanes stronger, it is also making dangerous rapidly intensifying hurricanes like Laura and Michael and Harvey more common.

    According to research published in 2019 in Nature Communications, Atlantic hurricanes showed “highly unusual” upward trends in rapid intensification during the period 1982 – 2009, trends that can be explained only by including human-caused climate change as a contributing cause. The largest change occurred in the strongest 5% of storms: for those, 24-hour intensification rates increased by about 3 – 4 mph per decade between 1982 – 2009.

    Rapidly intensifying hurricanes like Michael and Harvey that strengthen just before landfall are among the most dangerous storms, as they can catch forecasters and populations off guard, risking inadequate evacuation efforts and large casualties.

  • In addition to rapidly intensifying, Hurricane Zeta broke the record for the earliest 27th named storm in a single hurricane season and became the 11th named storm to make landfall in the continental United States this year, breaking a record that had stood since 1916. 

    Despite the evidence that global warming is making storms like Zeta stronger and wetter, corporate broadcast TV news shows only mentioned climate change once during the 30 segments the networks aired about the hurricane from October 28-29.

  • 10.30-05.20_hurricane zeta coverage.jpeg
  • 2020’s record-breaking hurricane season has spurred little broadcast news coverage of climate change

  • During this busy hurricane season, broadcast TV news shows have rarely connected the storms to climate change. None of the combined 43 segments about Hurricane Laura between August 27 and September 4 mentioned climate despite it being the most powerful hurricane to hit Louisiana in 150 years, while only two out of 65 broadcast news segments about Hurricane Sally between September 15-17 mentioned climate. And, most recently, none of the broadcast outlets’ 49 segments on Hurricane Delta from October 9-12 mentioned climate change.

    This continues a multiyear trend of broadcast TV news’ failure to consistently connect climate change to devastating storms. In 2017, broadcast news shows aired only four total segments that discussed climate change in the context of that year’s extreme weather events, including just two segments that mentioned climate change in the context of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, or Maria. None of the broadcast networks’ news reports mentioned climate change in coverage of the 2018 hurricanes, which included Hurricanes Florence and Michael. And in 2019, broadcast TV news aired only one segment that mentioned climate change in a week of coverage of the year’s most devastating storm, Hurricane Dorian.

  • If broadcast TV news will barely mention climate change, how can it even begin to fully contextualize the real impact of extreme storms like Zeta?

  • Although corporate TV news coverage of extreme weather events, especially hurricanes, overwhelmingly reports on them as isolated meteorological phenomena whose magnitude and human impact are mostly defined by statistics and the usual parade of disaster imagery, many of the climate mentions in recent extreme weather coverage have come from meteorologists. In fact, NBC Today co-host and meteorologist Al Roker was the only person on corporate broadcast news who connected Zeta to climate change during the studied time period. This is commendable, but it’s not nearly enough to tell the complete story of climate change’s impacts on society and the most vulnerable communities, specifically. 

    News media covering extreme weather events must prioritize stories of those on the frontlines of the climate crisis and amplify their voices. They must contextualize the challenges faced by marginalized communities in ways that don’t perpetuate harmful myths that undermine support for public policy solutions, as we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic. They must connect extreme weather events to the past, present, and future political inaction that has allowed the fossil fuel industry to pollute our air, land, and water. 

    But first, broadcast TV news shows must consistently connect extreme weather events such as Hurricane Zeta to the climate crisis. Unfortunately, they seem unwilling to clear even this low hurdle, as communities across the United States and abroad are being destroyed by record-shattering hurricanes, fires, heat waves, and droughts with barely any attempt from corporate media to connect these climate-fueled disasters to the existential threat of our time.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ This Morning and Evening News, and NBC’s Today and NBC Nightly News for any of the terms “hurricane,” “storm,” or “zeta" from October 28-29, 2020.

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

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