On August 9, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark climate report that outlined in no uncertain terms that due to the burning of fossil fuels and inaction, we are in a climate emergency with limited time to act. As expected, the report was widely covered across traditional, digital, and social media.
Broadcast morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS aired a combined six segments on the IPCC climate report across 22 minutes on Monday. Original programming on CNN and MSNBC aired a combined 26 segments across 99 minutes. (The other major cable network, Fox, aired only 15 minutes across four segments on the report.)
But while almost all national TV news programs, with the exception of Fox, mentioned the report -- not all coverage was equal. Reporting on the IPCC climate report produced some clear winners and losers.
Broadcast and cable news spent more than two hours covering landmark climate report
Morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS aired a combined six segments across 22 minutes on the IPCC’s latest climate report. Among the corporate networks, CBS led with six minutes of coverage, followed by ABC with nearly five minutes, and NBC with a little more than two minutes. PBS NewsHour aired a nearly nine-minute segment about the report’s findings.
On the cable news networks, original programming on CNN and MSNBC aired a combined 26 segments across nearly 100 minutes of coverage about the IPCC report. Although MSNBC only aired four more segments than CNN -- 15 segments compared to CNN’s 11 -- the network spent double the amount of time covering the findings, 66 minutes compared to CNN’s 33 minutes.
Notable coverage of the United Nations climate report
The IPCC’s sixth assessment report is the starkest and most comprehensive to date. Produced in cooperation with 195 governments, it reviewed over 14,000 cited references and determined that there is “unequivocal” evidence that humans are responsible for climate change and confirms that climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying.”
The U.N. secretary-general called the report a “code red for humanity,” warning that “we are at imminent risk of hitting 1.5 degrees in the near term.”
The majority of coverage accurately characterized the severity of the climate emergency as articulated by the report. And much of the coverage used extreme weather events from this summer including the horrific and deadly fires burning through Greece, Turkey, and the American West to illustrate key findings in the report. For example, CBS This Morning aired a strong segment about the report’s findings regarding extreme weather, which featured meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli.
Another strong segment about the report’s findings aired during MSNBC’s Craig Melvin Reports, which hosted Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell who discussed what FEMA will have to do to prepare for more frequent and intense extreme weather events.
Some programs’ coverage went beyond the main takeaways from the report to lift up lesser but equally important findings such as the role of methane in driving global warming and how addressing it can drastically reduce emissions that are causing climate change. CNN’s chief climate correspondent Bill Weir, during the August 9 edition of CNN Newsroom, articulated not only how harmful methane is, but also pointed out the fallacy of natural gas, the main source of methane release, as a clean fuel. This type of coverage is particularly necessary at a time when the natural gas and fracking industry is using massive public relations campaigns to deceive the public and decision-makers into believing that natural gas is a cleaner alternative to coal.
MSNBC’s The Reid Out was one of the few shows to invite a climate and environmental justice activist on to discuss the report’s findings. The segment featured Mustafa Santiago Ali, an environmental justice activist and vice president of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation. During his appearance, Ali contextualized what the IPCC’s findings mean for socially marginalized communities or those “who are often hit first and worst.”
Fox’s coverage of the IPCC climate report attempted to sow doubt about its findings
Past coverage of major climate reports have often fallen prey to false equivalence -- whereby programs have given airtime to climate skeptics and deniers in order to seem unbiased. Fortunately, broadcast and cable networks, with the exception of Fox News, did not feel the need to present the unfounded opinion of a small group still pushing the dangerous lie that the climate crisis is not happening.
Fox’s flagship “straight news” program made a feeble attempt at undermining the gravity of the report by suggesting that its conclusions were alarming to just the “global warming community.” The show also enlisted climate denier Steve Koonin, a theoretical physicist with no formal background in climate science and an experienced Fox guest who has used his controversial history within the scientific and political climate change community to contradict established scientific consensus. To underscore Fox’s false equivalence, even the reporter noted after Koonin’s climate denial spiel that his claims were in the “minority”. (Special Report followed up the segment with an interview with Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm in which anchor Bret Baier questioned whether the Biden administration’s climate policies are “too much, too fast.”)
Beyond this problematic segment, Fox was remarkably silent, spending just 15 minutes on the report. In addition to the two segments on Special Report, which accounted for the bulk of Fox’s coverage on the climate report, Fox’s America’s Newsroom briefly mentioned the report with the caveat that it is “sure to be debated.” Notably, America’s Newsroom -- which is the mid-morning program -- was the first to mention the landmark report on Fox. The network apparently dedicated much of the morning to former President Barack Obama’s birthday party. It isn’t the first time Fox has deflected major climate news by focusing on non-stories. In 2018, when the National Climate Assessment was released by the Trump administration, Fox reportedly spent more time talking about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) shoes than the dire warnings in the report.
We need strong climate coverage everyday
TV news is increasingly linking extreme weather events to the climate crisis. Yesterday’s coverage of the IPCC report marks the third major day of climate coverage this year. January 29, a day designated as “climate day” because a series of climate executive orders signed by the Biden administration, held cable news’ attention for more than four hours; and on Earth Day on April 22, broadcast and cable news combined produced more than four hours of coverage related to climate and the environment. The needle on climate coverage is moving, but as the IPCC report makes clear, it’s not enough. A crisis of this magnitude, where the stakes are a livable planet, requires not decent, episodic coverage, but sustained and elevated reporting.
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, NBC’s Today and Nightly News, and PBS’ NewsHour as well as all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “report,” “study,” “IPCC,” “UN,” “United Nations," or “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change" within close proximity of either of the terms “global warming” or “global heating” or any variation of the term “climate” for August 9, 2021.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the IPCC report was the stated topic of discussion or when two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed the IPCC report with one another. We excluded passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker commented on the IPCC report without another speaker in the segment engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as promotions for segments scheduled to air later in the broadcast about the IPCC report. We rounded all times to the nearest minute.