Corporate TV news needs to break its cycle of shallow coverage of extreme weather
Here are five ways how
Corporate TV news programs’ coverage of extreme weather events -- climate-fueled wildfires, superstorms, record-breaking heat waves, and megadroughts -- has become as predictable as the events themselves. With few exceptions, they are reported as isolated meteorological phenomena whose magnitude and human impact are mostly defined by statistics and the usual parade of disaster imagery.
It's a choice corporate TV news makes to report extreme weather events this way -- and it's a harmful one.
This choice 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.
It’s long past time for a course correction to corporate TV news’ extreme weather coverage. To lay out a more holistic approach to extreme weather reporting, we spoke with a documentary filmmaker, an independent journalist, an activist, a scientist, and a pastor.
Here are five choices TV news programs can make to produce extreme weather reporting that breaks the cycle of shallow coverage.
1. Connect extreme weather events to the climate crisis
The science on the connection between climate and extreme weather and wildfires is indisputable. So too are the dangers of climate inaction and denial. But these aspects of the climate crisis are rarely discussed by TV news when such events actually happen.
In 2019, communities across the United States and abroad were leveled by record-shattering hurricanes, fires, heat waves, and droughts, which were all made more deadly by climate change. But by and large, the major media outlets in the U.S. -- particularly TV news -- did not characterize these events in that context, a trend that goes back years.
In July of 2019, a sprawling heat wave impacted two-thirds of the United States, putting thousands at risk and causing multiple deaths. But an underwhelming amount of TV news segments mentioned the role of climate change in these dangerously rising temperatures. When Hurricane Dorian struck the following month, corporate broadcast news aired 216 segments on the strongest Atlantic storm ever to hit land -- and only one mentioned climate change. In October, a string of destructive wildfires spread across parts of California, and in December, apocalyptic bushfires broke out in Australia extracting an enormous toll on the continent. But neither event prompted broadcast TV news to grapple with the role of climate change in fueling these fires.
Coverage that clears the low hurdle of connecting the dots between extreme weather and an increasingly warming world stumbles in discussing climate inaction or holding accountable those who are obstructing efforts to mitigate impacts. For example, the Trump administration has targeted every effort to reduce carbon emissions -- from withdrawing from the Paris climate accord to rolling back clean car standards and the Clean Power Plan. But when extreme weather events happen, news coverage rarely connects these policies to climate impacts. Even more rare is the discussion of industry-backed campaigns to obstruct action on climate change.
Mattias Lehman, digital director at Sunrise Movement, tells Media Matters that making these connections clear is vital to holding powerful industries and decision-makers accountable. Coverage should “actively point the finger at causes,” he says, including at the efforts by the fossil fuel industry to deny the existence and causes of climate change.
“The phrase that I never want to hear again is ‘act of God,’” he continues. “Yes, there is a level of inevitability of climate disasters. We won’t live in a world without hurricanes. On the other hand, we know that hurricane season [and] wildfires are getting worse, droughts are getting worse, and we know why. But that ‘why’ never seems to come up when we talk about climate disasters, particularly looking at Exxon and other fossil fuel companies.”
Lehman goes on to note, “They knew what the consequences of continuing fossil fuel extraction and consumption would be and they did it anyway. Government regulators also knew and took no action.”
As Lehman points out, the failure to connect these dots risks having the “blame put back on everyday average people” for their personal choices to, for example, eat cheeseburgers and use plastic bags. “It is not just unhelpful because it’s misleading, but it also makes a lot of people defensive,” he says.
2. Connect extreme weather events to policies and practices that exacerbate climate impacts and hamper recovery
In addition to climate action, there are other examples of federal, state, and local decision-making that determine the resilience of a state or a community to respond and recover from extreme weather events.
Documentary filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo suggests that these tragedies are the right time to educate the public and advance conversations around the preexisting conditions that hinder response and recovery because they apply not just to extreme weather disasters, but to other crises like the COVID-19 pandemic as well. Aldarondo, whose recent documentary Landfall looks at Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, tells Media Matters:
Any amount or frequency of media attention does not mean a depth of media attention. You can have a bunch of articles that say a lot of similar things about the scale of the storm, about the death toll, … but very rarely would you see in the mainstream media any sense of depth. For example, I don’t know that an increase in attention to the hurricane yielded an increase in attention to the debt crisis in Puerto Rico. If the mainstream media had unpacked it then we could have a much more conversant population on disaster capitalism. What does it mean? What does it mean that there are people that want to make money off this crisis? How do we hold them accountable? What does a just recovery look like? What is mutual aid? These are all things that people in Puerto Rico are experts on.
Lyndsey Gilpin -- founder and editor of Southerly, an independent media organization about ecology, justice, and culture in the South -- notes that federal relief efforts are another subject that has gone uninvestigated despite major storms in the South year after year:
There is a huge gap between stories that announce the amount of funding going into a relief effort and the stories that examine the distribution of that money into communities. Oftentimes the money doesn’t get there at all -- after two years people are still living in tents and trailers. Audiences and journalists are so disconnected from the disaster relief system and how it works. If we want to do better climate reporting, we have to do better recovery reporting.
Indeed, extreme weather disasters bring into stark relief the policies, practices, and systems that fail to serve American communities and can even hurt them. They also offer perhaps the only time that issues like Puerto Rico’s debt crisis or the seismic inadequacies of our federal response and recovery efforts get organically propelled onto the national stage. And because major storms and extreme weather events happen so frequently, there is an opportunity for a sustained examination of how these events interconnect.
“These events are just building on each other now, so we need to find a way to have our stories build on each other too,” Gilpin says, “so that people understand [that] OK, this is what is happening to my community, this is how climate change is impacting that, these are the agencies that are responsible for it, and this is how my vote impacts it.”
3. Contextualize disproportionate impacts of extreme climate events by reporting on the systemic inequalities and injustices that shape them
The widespread protests for racial and social justice throughout the country have forced many U.S. media companies to seriously reckon with their coverage of these issues; this reckoning should include their failure to recognize that climate and racial justice are inextricable. As environmental and climate justice leader Elizabeth Yeampierre tells Yale Environment 360:
The communities that are most impacted by Covid, or by pollution, it’s not surprising that they’re the ones that are going to be most impacted by extreme weather events. And it’s not surprising that they’re the ones that are targeted for racial violence. It’s all the same communities, all over the United States. And you can’t treat one part of the problem without the other, because it’s so systemic.
Building public awareness and support for unraveling local, state, and federal policies that result in poor communities and communities of color being disproportionately harmed by climate impacts and environmental pollution requires, in part, corporate news outlets to report on the complex legacy of racism, economic exploitation, and climate injustice. But the inability or unwillingness to contextualize such complex issues seems to be a key feature of corporate TV news.
For example, over the course of three years, not a single segment that aired on corporate broadcast news reported on the disparate impacts of hurricanes on marginalized communities -- despite ample research highlighting how low-income communities and communities of color suffer disproportionately from climate impacts. More recently, throughout April, broadcast TV news failed to report that air pollution worsens COVID-19 outcomes and thus people who live in the most polluted areas of the country, who also happen to be mostly Black, are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
These disproportionate impacts do not occur in a vacuum; they are the product of myriad decisions made by local, state, and federal officials. Without this context, socially marginalized communities may be subjected to dangerous misunderstandings that further marginalize them. Viewers may be left with the impression that people who have their lives upended by climate change are really just unfortunate victims of nature, rather than victims of a failing system that has not provided the basic needs for nearly half of its people.
When it comes to contextualizing climate justice specifically, Aldarondo notes that when extreme weather events happen, the press should ask itself that “ instead of reaffirming ignorance about the history of a place or people,” how can it “actually combat it.” She says that if people want to understand extreme weather events like Hurricane Maria and their impact, “we have to go back, we have to go a little deeper. It’s not enough to understand how climate change accelerates storms and makes them bigger. How is it that climate change is also coming up against and making landfall on a territory that has 500 years of colonial dependency baked into it? … To understand the impact of climate change, you have to understand this.”
Or as Adrienne L. Hollis, a senior climate justice and health scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells Media Matters:
This is a story the media must tell: How, through the climate crisis -- particularly the numerous extreme weather events -- we saw that our most vulnerable were not protected, yet we did not prepare for future events. COVID-19 has reinforced that message. Now, we have a convolution of issues and we still are not planning on ways to protect our most vulnerable.
Corporate news media must tell the complete story of the ways low-income communities and minority communities experience climate change, why they are at greater risk, and what potential solutions exist to address these challenges.
4. Amplify the voices of those on the frontlines of the climate crisis
The stories that corporate news media chose to tell or ignore during previous extreme weather events indicated a choice about whose voices should be heard. Lehman notes the prevalence of stories about animal rescues and human interest stories of owners being reunited with their pets and characterizes the problems with corporate TV news’ extreme weather reporting in stark terms:
For every abandoned dog after a storm, there is a family that has had their life ruined. And that the media is going to pay way more attention to that rescued dog than the (predominantly Black) families that lost their homes and their family members is a clear indication of the, to be blunt, somewhat racist priorities of the media.
The stories and voices corporate news media choose to elevate -- as a potentially active storm season collides with the COVID-19 pandemic -- will signal whether they are focusing on the climate and environmental challenges faced by socially marginalized communities, especially in light of their extensive coverage of the ongoing racial justice protests. Corporate broadcast news outlets have missed both stories in the past; now is the chance for them to get it right.
Pastor Ambrose Carroll is the founder of Green the Church, an organization working with Black churches in disadvantaged communities across the country to promote sustainable practices and help them build economic and political change. Carroll tells Media Matters that he challenges himself to “think about people across the country who are doing this work every day, and how can we give voice to that? Especially now that people are reaching out saying, ‘What can we do?’”
“We are connected to everything; everything matters,” he says.
Giving voice to those from socially marginalized communities who are working to advance climate and environmental justice is something corporate TV news rarely, if ever, does. People of color made up a dismal 10% or less of those featured in network news climate segments in 2019 overall -- a continuation of a three-year streak -- even though they suffered disproportionately from the consequences of climate change, corporate fossil fuel pollution, and state-sanctioned environmental racism, and are more concerned than whites about addressing these challenges.
This unfortunate trend cannot continue, especially when there are so many voices that corporate media can readily elevate and amplify on these issues. There are climate scientists and climate justice activists, including young people of color, who can speak to their work combating and mitigating the consequences of climate change. There are Indigenous activists who can speak to the unique climate justice claims of tribal nations and peoples.
As philosopher, programmer, and human rights activist Heather Marsh so neatly summarizes in her essay on today’s media landscape, “In an interactive, decentralized world, the voiceless do not need someone to be their voice. They need a megaphone.”
5. Keep telling the story
Too often, TV news coverage ends once the rain has abated or the fires are contained. Far from the end, the period after the storm is when systemic failures and inequities that keep communities from recovering are most exposed. Gilpin suggests that national media’s model of parachuting into a location after a disaster bears some responsibility for its shallow coverage:
One of my frustrations with national coverage is that while they have an opportunity to put disasters or other events into context, oftentimes national reporters and editors instead feel like vultures, swooping in to see the damage and pick at what's left. They report on the worst aspects of what has happened, tell the whole world about it, and then never come back again.
Gilpin explains the further harm in this model: “It is not only not great journalism, it’s hurting the communities and the local news outlets — impacted people see these stories and then don’t trust reporters to tell the full truth, or to stay and ensure people can move forward with their lives. They only show the immediate aftermath of what happened, and leave out context, the history, and the potential solutions or changes that could be made.”
Staying on the story and investing time in a place impacted by disaster can help break that cycle and build trust.
Aldarondo asks, “How many times are you going back? How much time are you spending in a place? What information do you have about a place? Who are you partnering with to tell the stories?”
She believes that the answers to these questions help predict the depth of the coverage and points to CBS’ David Begnaud’s coverage of Hurricane Maria as an example of this type of journalistic rigor. “He is the only U.S. reporter, who I know of, who has consistently returned to Puerto Rico and consistently sought to educate himself on Puerto Rico as he’s done his coverage,” she notes. According to Media Matters’ data, after Begnaud’s initial reporting on the hurricane, a period which lasted roughly two weeks, he returned to the island at least eight times in the first year of recovery. A review of that coverage shows that Begnaud repeatedly exposed the federal government’s inability to execute short-term and long-term recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.
Returning to the impacted communities also provides journalists the opportunity to cover the resiliency planning and problem-solving that vulnerable communities are able to employ after devastating extreme weather events, as well as the robust organizing and activism that underpins these recovery efforts. As Gilpin tells Media Matters:
We need to talk about inaction, but at the same time we need to be talking about how local communities are actually trying to do things about climate change in lieu of the state. So many of the communities and nonprofits and local organizations have really stepped up because there is nobody in power handling it.
Shallow coverage of extreme weather is harmful
Shallow coverage that doesn’t provide context or causation and lacks perspective from those experiencing extreme weather disasters runs the risk of reinforcing harmful narratives and presumptions.
Lehman tells Media Matters that a common theme in extreme weather reporting is placing blame on those who live in places subject to severe and repeated climate impacts:
One response that we see a lot is why do they live there? For example when a hurricane hits, [media tend to ask] why we have cities at or below sea level (answer: because ports are important). When we had the massive mudslides in California, the question was why are people building their houses on the hills? The media tends to blame people, implicitly for where they live, when these places are being made more inhospitable every day by climate change.”
Aldarondo says the images that emerged out of the 2017 Hurricane Maria coverage were hysterical -- a barrage of traumatic images that depicted and reinforced Puerto Ricans as helpless victims, waiting to be rescued.
Gilpin shares this opinion:
This idea of hopelessness, which is especially true in the South because of the history of this region and because it is so overrun with industry and because racial injustice is still very overt, people assume there is just no helping them and that is reinforced in disaster coverage. ... If you don’t hear what happens after, what these people are doing, how they are surviving, and because you are not hearing about the systemic issues, the message that these people can’t help themselves gets reinforced.
When you only see pictures of these communities when they are flooded and not what it looks like a year later, that doesn’t help.
These depictions are harmful because they serve to rationalize the very structural inequalities that often make these events so traumatic for so many -- and they justify their suffering.
Corporate TV news shows must make the choice to first do no harm and then do better. They must choose to 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. 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. And they must tell these stories again and again, for as long as it takes “to awaken, inform, and rouse the people to action.”