2020 was a challenging year for climate journalism, especially considering the high bar set in 2019. Not only did the quality of climate coverage decrease, but mainstream news outlets perpetuated some of their most egregious practices from years past, such as ceding the narrative to Fox News and failing to consistently connect the science of climate change to extreme weather events. Although some of this decline is likely attributable to COVID-19, even when there was a direct connection between climate and the pandemic, corporate TV news rarely covered it.
Despite this, there were some notable highlights, many of which are listed below, that built on the momentum of 2019 and prior years. News outlets must recognize that their audiences, and the public at large, are eager to hear news about climate change and commit to shared, sustained, and substantive climate journalism that meets the scale of the climate crisis and informs the public about potential solutions that could mitigate global warming’s worst effects.
Climate change took center stage during the general election for the first time in 2020
Based on recent debate performances, there wasn't much hope that Fox News anchor Chris Wallace would engage the candidates in a substantive discussion of climate change or environmental policy when he served as moderator during the first general election debate of 2020.
Only 1.5% of the questions in the 2016 presidential primary debates were about climate change, and moderators of the 2016 general election debates, including Wallace, failed to pose a single climate question during the three debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
In 2019, the Democratic National Committee had ruled against holding a dedicated climate debate during the Democratic presidential primaries. The ensuing debates confirmed activists’ worst fears about this decision: Less than 7% of the questions were about climate change or the environment. In two of the 11 Democratic primary debates, moderators failed to ask even a single climate question.
Despite these ominous signs and to the surprise of many, Wallace led the candidates in an 11-minute conversation about the climate crisis on September 29, the first time in 12 years that a moderator raised the subject in a general election debate.
Wallace asked the candidates about climate change after public pressure and sustained campaigns to elevate public awareness around the crisis made it impossible for him to ignore it. And he did receive some credit for making climate change a topic of discussion, setting the stage for upcoming debate moderators to improve on his performance.
Although the second general election debate was canceled in lieu of dueling town halls, climate change again took center stage during the vice presidential debate on October 7. It was increasingly clear: Moderators were discussing climate change, in part, because it had become untenable for them to ignore the crisis.
Climate change again took center stage during the last presidential debate of 2020, which was held on October 22 and moderated by NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker. Notably, Welker asked a direct question about environmental justice, possibly for the first time during a general election debate.
The questions themselves were far from perfect. Except for Welker, moderators throughout these debates asked questions that evinced a deep skepticism of the efficacy of climate action and were framed around bogus right-wing media narratives. But there is no denying the intense organizing that so many climate and environmental groups did to raise awareness of the climate crisis and make climate change a substantive part of the presidential debates. And their work has set a new precedent for future debates to follow.
For a moment, corporate TV news showed a glimpse of what robust climate coverage could look like
This year’s wildfire season was again historic and record-breaking, causing a swath of death and destruction that shocked news media usually inured to the devastation of “the new normal.” The fires’ sheer destructive power commanded significant media coverage and, for a brief moment, TV news outlets covered them as an indicator that the climate crisis is here, now.
To be fair, President Trump’s inane denial of the role climate change played in the fires’ increasing frequency and destructiveness helped spur the multiple-day discussion across corporate TV news programs about the relationship between climate change and the historic disaster. During the height of coverage, from September 14-18, corporate broadcast TV networks ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 46 segments about wildfires on their morning and evening news shows, with 30% of them mentioning climate change. This represents twice as many mentions as a similar review in early September and a three-fold increase over wildfire coverage in all of August.
Meanwhile, on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, 57% of the 150 wildfire segments aired during this time mentioned climate change. This represented a tremendous increase in climate mentions when compared to a similar review in early September, when these same networks mentioned climate change in only 13% of wildfire segments.
Corporate TV news would do well to build on this short-lived coverage; polling shows that audiences want to see more climate reporting in the news -- and specifically as it pertains to extreme weather events.
Progressive polling firm Data for Progress found that 77% of likely voters say it is important for news media to connect climate science to extreme weather events, and 71% want to know if climate change is exacerbating an extreme weather event when it’s discussed in the news. TV news outlets would do well to recognize that audiences want more and better climate coverage in the new year, expanding on the brief example set by wildfire coverage in mid-September.
Print and online media continued raising the bar for climate journalism
Covering Climate Now celebrated its second year
Covering Climate Now, a partnership that comprises hundreds of media outlets committed to improving their climate journalism, celebrated its second year by again providing high-quality, free content for reprint and rebroadcast and launching new initiatives. Regarding the success of the project, co-founder Mark Hertsgaard told Media Matters:
Climate journalism came a long way in 2020. If 2019 was the year when the mainstream media at last abandoned the “climate silence” that blunted public understanding and political action for so long, 2020 has been the year when politicians and newsrooms alike began treating climate as a top-tier issue that demanded serious, sustained attention.
In addition to adding a number of new partners in 2020, including NBC News, Telemundo, and MSNBC, Covering Climate Now also launched a joint coverage week from September 21-28 under hashtags including “#ClimatePolitics2020” and “#YouthTakeoverDay” to elevate the voices of the young people whose lives will be most shaped by the climate crisis. It also hosted a series of six webinars titled “Talking Shop” that were tailored to journalists reporting on climate during the COVID-19 pandemic. The topics included how to cover extreme weather as a climate story, the intersection of climate issues with racial and environmental justice, and advice on covering climate change during the coronavirus pandemic.
Covering Climate Now has been one of the most successful climate projects in recent years, boosting the reach of quality climate and environmental justice stories. As the partnership continues to grow and innovate, it will be one to watch in the months and years to come.
The Guardian became the second newspaper to ban fossil fuel ads
The fossil fuel industry has waged a billion-dollar campaign to erode the public consensus on climate science -- despite knowing for decades that its products were driving climate change and would lead to catastrophic consequences. Now that increasingly frequent and devastating extreme weather events have spiked public concern about climate change, as well as a desire for the government to curb emissions, the fossil fuel industry is in the midst of an attempted rebrand as climate champions. In addition to running greenwashing campaigns on social media to sway public opinion, these efforts included exploiting the legacy news media’s hunger for revenue to peddle branded content -- a type of advertisement designed to look like the outlet's own stories -- that is rife with misleading claims about natural gas.
That’s what makes The Guardian’s decision so important: Following on the heels of the Swedish newspaper Dagens ETC, the U.K. paper announced in January that it had banned ads from any business involved in extracting fossil fuels. The Guardian’s acting chief executive, Anna Bateson, and its chief revenue officer, Hamish Nicklin, said in a joint statement, “Our decision is based on the decades-long efforts by many in that industry to prevent meaningful climate action by governments around the world.”
Considering the effectively limitless money the fossil fuel industry has at its disposal and a demonstrated willingness to do whatever it takes to protect its bottom line, planet be damned, we can only hope other news organizations follow The Guardian’s courageous example by refusing to provide the fossil fuel industry with advertising platforms it has used to mislead the public and duck accountability.
The rise of independent climate journalism
The news media is in a precarious state. According to a 2018 study by the University of North Carolina, almost 2,000 newspapers closed between 2004 and 2018. In the digital media landscape, the Columbia Journalism Review found that 3,385 journalists lost their jobs in 2019. In April 2020, The New York Times reported that 37,000 news media employees had “been laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced since the arrival of the coronavirus.”
Increasingly, writers and journalists have found new avenues such as email newsletters to ply their craft and reach their audiences directly. This includes using new platforms such as Patch, a local digital news company, and Substack, an online publishing platform for subscription newsletters.
At the local level, one of the early pioneers in this sphere was Jiquanda Johnson, who is the founder, publisher, and executive editor of Flint Beat, a digital news site serving Flint, Michigan. Although Johnson had written extensively about the Flint water crisis, the veteran reporter left MLive in 2017 to start a news site that would “fill news gaps in an underserved community after Flint, Mich. residents said they needed more from their news coverage.” Her news outlet provides coverage on a diverse array of issues and serves a community “tired of seeing news filled with only crime, sports, and Flint’s ongoing water crisis.”
But 2020 was the year that independent newsletters and online publishing focused on climate change and environmental justice took center stage.
One of the first climate journalists to start their own climate newsletter via Substack is former New Republic journalist Emily Atkin, who left the outlet in July 2019 and began publishing Heated that September. Now, Heated is one of the platform’s most popular publications. Other notable climate and environment publications include Mary Annaïse Heglar’s and Amy Westervelt’s Hot Take, David Roberts’ Volts, and Eric Holthaus’ The Phoenix.
Mainstream outlets have also leveraged their large readerships to produce climate-focused newsletters. This includes The New York Times’ “Climate Forward,” The Atlantic’s “The Weekly Planet,” and The New Yorker’s “The Climate Crisis,” written by climate activist Bill McKibben.
While it’s undeniably good that legacy media is serving up climate-focused products for their audiences, a special kudos goes out to the current and future climate journalists who are working to produce substantive and informative climate and environmental journalism with little to no institutional infrastructure or backing.
Despite these highlights, corporate TV news has much room for improvement
Many of the problems that have plagued mainstream climate coverage continued in 2020. For example, conservative and right-wing media continued to frame the narrative around the climate crisis. During the presidential campaign, Fox News repeatedly lied about Joe Biden’s climate plans. Whether it was advancing a false narrative that Biden would ban fracking if elected or repeatedly claiming that Biden supported the Green New Deal, Fox dominated the climate discourse.
Unfortunately, when the other cable news networks deigned to discuss climate and energy, they too often echoed Fox’s right-wing framing of the issues. Not only did CNN and MSNBC also frequently run with the overstated narrative that fracking was key to winning or losing Pennsylvania, their discussion of Biden’s oil transition comments during the last general election debate echoed conservative and pro-industry framing about the negative implications transitioning from fossil fuels would have on the oil and gas industry.
TV news outlets’ refusal to treat the climate crisis as an urgent issue with political ramifications also continued in 2020. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, broadcast and cable news basically ignored how the Trump administration advanced its harmful deregulatory agenda under the cover of COVID-19, while coverage of then-Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation rarely mentioned her climate denialist stances and the dark money funding her nomination.
As in 2019 and other years past, corporate TV news in 2020 failed to consistently connect the science of climate change to extreme weather events. Whether it was extreme heat, Arctic melt, hurricanes, or wildfires, corporate broadcast and cable news programs rarely broke from their pattern of shallow extreme weather coverage, largely continuing the trend of covering these events as isolated meteorological phenomena whose magnitude and human impact are mostly defined by statistics and the usual parade of disaster imagery.
Good climate reporting can potentially disrupt public apathy, frustration, and cynicism about the efficacy of climate action, as demonstrated by the youth climate movement. News media across the spectrum have demonstrated the ability to do this, at least on occasion, but still struggle to consistently cover the climate crisis with the seriousness and intensity it demands. In 2021, more news outlets must commit to shared, sustained, and substantive reporting that engages the public, eschews disinformation, and details the potential solutions that could mitigate climate change’s worst consequences.