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Despite clear signals that Hurricane Idalia was influenced by climate change, less than 2% of TV news coverage made the link

Over more than 46 hours of combined broadcast and cable news coverage of the storm, climate change was mentioned only 12 times

Hurricane Idalia slammed into Florida's Gulf Coast on the morning of August 30 as a Category 3 storm with wind speeds of 125 miles per hour. Major print news outlets such as The Associated Press, The New York Times, and The Washington Post included the role of climate change in supercharging the storm in their reporting. With little exception, however, national TV news coverage of Hurricane Idalia failed to link the unique factors associated with the storm — including the record ocean temperatures that fed its rapid intensification — to the climate crisis. 

From August 29-30, an analysis by Media Matters found:

  • Less than 2% of the 780 segments and weathercasts about Hurricane Idalia across national TV news mentioned climate change.
  • Major cable news networks — CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC — aired 44 hours and 4 minutes of coverage across 691 segments or weathercasts about the hurricane, but only 10 mentioned climate change. MSNBC mentioned the connection between Idalia and climate change 5 times, CNN mentioned it 4 times and Fox News mentioned climate change once.
  • Corporate broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 89 segments or weathercasts that discussed Hurricane Idalia over 2 hours and 32 minutes, but only 2 of those segments mentioned climate change.
  • Record warm ocean temperatures supercharged Hurricane Idalia

  • Record warm ocean temperatures, which in July reached 101.1 degrees Fahrenheit in waters off Florida’s southern tip, contributed to Idalia’s rapid intensification and overall strength. As the AP noted just before the storm made landfall, “Hurricanes get their energy from warm water. Idalia is at an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

    CNN reported, “When a hurricane undergoes rapid intensification, its maximum sustained winds increase by at least 35 mph in 24 hours or less – driving up the danger the storm could pose to life and property.” Idalia went from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 4 in a 24-hour period — as reported by Yale Climate Communications, “Idalia put on a very impressive burst of rapid intensification just before landfall, its winds increasing from 75 mph to 130 mph.”

    The record ocean temperatures and their role in Idalia’s rapid intensification were a staple of TV news coverage of the storm both as it approached Florida’s coast and once it made landfall. Several reports on Hurricane Idalia mentioned how the ocean temperatures acted like “jet fuel” for the storm without mentioning climate change. 

    For example, CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam reported on August 29 that “it's literally off to the races for Hurricane Idalia. It is now into the open waters of the warm Gulf of Mexico, and we talk about that being jet fuel because water temperatures there are literally 2 to upwards of 4 degrees Fahrenheit above where they should be this time of year. So that is just going to aid in this intensification process.”

    The term “rapid intensification” alone was mentioned across national TV news segments on the storm at least 37 times over a 2-day period, with many more iterations of this idea repeated throughout the coverage. But despite the obvious role of warming ocean waters in contributing to Hurricane Idalia, broadcast and cable news coverage only rarely connected its sudden intensity to climate change. 

    MSNBC made the connection between the storm and climate change in 5 of its 163 segments on Idalia, and CNN linked climate change in just 4 of 347 segments. Fox News mentioned climate change in 1 of its 181 segments. That mention, on the August 30 edition of Special Report with Brett Baier, dismissed comments from President Joe Biden connecting the storm to climate change. 

    Among the corporate broadcast networks, ABC and CBS each had 1 mention connecting the storm to climate change across their respective 28 segments on Hurricane Idalia. NBC failed to mention climate change at all — though the network aired 33 segments on the storm.

    During the August 29 edition of CBS Evening News, anchor Norah O'Donnell illustrated in her headline report of Hurricane Idalia how effortless it should be to connect the storm to our warming planet, noting, “Extremely warm water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, largely from climate change and those persistent heat domes this summer, are fueling this hurricane.”

  • Other segments that mentioned climate change in connection with Hurricane Idalia went into more depth

  • On the August 29 edition of CNN News Central, anchor Brianna Keilar introduced an interview with climate scientist Michael Mann by noting: “This is a storm that gained additional strength early this morning. It's compounding what scientists have been warning for the last several hurricane seasons, which is that … the climate crisis we're seeing is making hurricanes intensify at a faster rate, and that's creating potentially deadly storm surge conditions.”

    Mann went on to explain how the conditions for the storm can be traced back to “an ever-warming planet from carbon pollution, from the burning of fossil fuels. And that heat isn't just at the surface, it's penetrating deeper into those ocean layers, and that's when you see this sort of intensification, these rapid intensification events.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the August 29, 2023, edition of CNN News Central

  • On the August 30 edition of All In with Chris Hayes, the host delivered an opening monologue which took specific aim at those attempting to dismiss the role of climate change, while also drawing the connection between intensifying storms and our warming planet.

    “Yes, storms are getting more powerful and more frequent,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said. “According to NASA climate data, since the 1980s, quote, ‘on average, there have been more storms, stronger hurricanes, and an increase in hurricanes that rapidly intensify.’ That last point about the intensity, that is where the real issue lies when it comes to the tangible effects on people living in the paths of these hurricanes."

  • Video file

    Citation From the August 30, 2023, edition of MSNBC's All in With Chris Hayes

  • On the August 29 edition of The Source with Kaitlan Collins, the anchor asked chief climate correspondent Bill Weir, “How are these record-breaking warm waters amplifying the effects of what we're watching tonight, just how quickly this storm is intensifying?” Weir went on to explain, “It's more energy for these hurricanes. It's steroids, whatever metaphor you want to use. One degree of warming Fahrenheit can lead to a 10% greater intensity of the storm.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the August 29, 2023, edition of CNN's The Source with Kaitlan Collins

  • On the August 29 edition of Good Morning America, in direct response to a question about the role of climate change in the storm, ABC News chief meteorologist and managing editor of the climate unit Ginger Zee explained: “As far as the water temperatures go, you know we've been talking about 2 to 4 degrees above average. That's a huge deal. It super-fuels storms. And yes, these storms would be here no matter what. They're part of nature. But with human-caused and -amplified climate change, we have upped the ante and given them extra fuel.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the August 29, 2023, edition of ABC's Good Morning America

  • National TV news’ wall-to-wall hurricane coverage must make the link to climate change

  • With their visually compelling footage of windblown reporters and surging waters, hurricanes often receive far more TV news coverage than other extreme weather events. The more than 46 hours of Hurricane Idalia coverage across cable and broadcast news over a 2-day period rivaled the whopping 57 hours of coverage over 5 days that national TV news dedicated to last year’s Hurricane Ian, and easily dwarfed the less than 12 hours of coverage over 2 days dedicated to the recent Hawaii wildfires

    Senior media writer for the Poynter Institute Tom Jones recounted in his August 30 newsletter an interview he had with colleague Al Tompkins two years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

  • “There is some value to the viewer to be able to see the intensity of a storm,” Tompkins told me after Hurricane Ida in 2021. “It can serve as a proxy for viewers who might have evacuated and want an eyewitness account of what they left behind. If you were locked in a shelter, you would be anxious to know what was happening outside.”

    Tompkins also brought up another important point: If the world can see how bad the storm is, help is more likely to follow.

    He told me back then, “God bless the journalists who are away from their families, who are walking around for days in wet socks while snarky bystanders shout ‘fake news’ at them. Let me tell you that live coverage saves lives. The communities that are suffering most desperately need journalists to document their needs. Help follows coverage.”

  • Indeed, both cable and broadcast coverage of Hurricane Idalia were saturated with reporting that showed the physical impact of the storm’s wind and water on the communities in its path — not just from reporters on the ground, but also from the perspective of storm chasers and even residents who decided to ride out the storm. Coverage also included informative interviews with emergency responders and local officials who reiterated safety precautions, warned of known dangers, and reported the services and resources that had been marshaled to address the aftermath of the storm. But how Hurricane Idalia fits into the broader story of climate change was almost completely missing from broadcast and cable news coverage.

    “With maximum winds of 125 mph, Idalia was the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Florida’s Big Bend region in more than 125 years,” CNN reported. According to Axios, “During the past few years, Florida has been hit with multiple storms along its Gulf coast that have intensified at rapid rates up through landfall, a process linked in part to climate change.” In part, these successive storms and projections of how climate will continue to batter Florida have thrown the state into an “insurance crisis” — a topic raised throughout the coverage, but without putting it in the context of climate change. Meanwhile, scientists this summer warned that we have entered “uncharted territory” as climate-fueled heat, wildfires, and flooding shattered records, took lives, and caused billions of dollars in damage

    The August 30 edition of CNN's The Lead with Jake Tapper both linked Idalia to climate change and put the storm in context with the ongoing extreme weather events that have played out this summer, with anchor Jake Tapper stating: “Tropical Storm Idalia is just one of multiple destructive weather events as Americans endure a summer of intense, relentless natural disasters.” Tapper went on to say, “For years we've heard that climate change is a growing threat. This year, we've seen all sorts of real extremes across the United States from Hawaii to Georgia. Is the average American, do you think, now starting to understand that climate change is here and having a disastrous effect?”

    The rapid growth of Hurricane Idalia was not just an aberration. TV news juggles many priorities in its coverage of hurricanes, but it’s long past time to start putting them in context with climate change and our warming planet.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight; CBS’ Mornings and Evening News; and NBC’s Today and Nightly News as well as all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for the term “Idalia,” including misspellings, within close proximity of any of the terms “storm,” “hurricane,” “Florida,” “Tampa,” “Tallahassee,” “Gulf of Mexico,” “Gulf Coast,” “Big Bend,” “Apalachee,” or “Category 3” from August 29, 2023, through August 30, 2023

    We timed segments, which we defined as instances when Hurricane Idalia was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of Idalia. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed Idalia with one another. We counted meteorologist and weather reports as segments.

    We did not time passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned Idalia without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about Idalia scheduled to air later in the broadcast. We rounded all times to the nearest minute.