Heading into peak extreme weather season, corporate broadcast networks must clearly and consistently link extreme weather to climate change
Media Matters / Molly Butler

Research/Study Research/Study

Heading into peak extreme weather season, corporate broadcast networks must clearly and consistently link extreme weather to climate change

In May, ABC, CBS, and NBC have largely failed to connect extreme weather events to climate change

From severe flooding inundating Brazil and Texas to relentless heat waves hammering Asia and one of the most active tornado seasons unfolding in the United States, extreme weather events are painting a vivid picture of how the global upheaval of climate change is already affecting our lives. However, despite corporate broadcast news networks thoroughly covering the U.S. tornadoes and Texas flooding in May, they rarely connected these and other extreme weather events around the world to the broader story of climate change. 

As we approach peak extreme weather season in what could be the hottest year on record, it is crucial that broadcast news outlets improve their reporting to clearly and consistently show how these events are interconnected as part of the global climate crisis.

  • Topline findings

  • A Media Matters analysis of extreme weather coverage from May 1-14 found:

    • The three major corporate broadcast TV networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 3 hours and 23 minutes about extreme weather events across 118 segments.
    • Only 2 of those segments (both from NBC) referenced climate change.
    • Only 3 segments mentioned extreme weather events happening outside the U.S. — 1 segment about the flooding in Afghanistan and 2 about the flooding in Brazil.
  • How broadcast networks covered the recent spate of extreme weather

  • ABC led extreme weather coverage during the studied period from May 1 to May 14, airing 74 minutes across 47 segments, followed by NBC with 66 minutes across 36 segments, and CBS with 64 minutes across 35 segments. Notably, NBC was the only network to explicitly connect extreme weather to climate change, with a scant 2 mentions.

    Focusing on specific extreme weather events, corporate broadcast news aired 61 total segments about the various tornado outbreaks in May, followed by 17 segments about the devastating flooding in Texas. (Additionally, numerous segments covered a combination of extreme weather events elsewhere in the U.S., including both tornadoes and flooding.) 

    ABC and NBC aired 1 segment each about the catastrophic flooding in Brazil, while CBS aired 1 segment about devastating flooding in Afghanistan. Notably, there was no coverage of the West Asia heat wave that climate scientists determined was made significantly worse because of global warming and “would have been ‘virtually impossible’ without human-caused climate change.”

  • Broadcast networks’ comprehensive coverage of extreme weather must contextualize climate change

  • Facing the rising visibility and frequency of extreme weather events, it is more vital than ever for corporate broadcast networks to consistently connect these disasters to climate change, cover extreme weather as a year-round phenomenon, and expand the scope of their reporting to cover other major extreme weather events happening around the world.

    Consistently connect extreme weather to climate change

    Despite the robust volume of extreme weather coverage during the studied period, broadcast networks basically ignored the climate connection, mirroring a similar trend in 2023. According to Media Matters’ annual broadcast climate study, climate change was mentioned in only a small percent of extreme weather coverage in 2023 — despite extreme weather being mentioned in 37% of all climate segments (160 out of 435). 

    For example, only 2% of segments from cable and broadcast news outlets about Hurricane Idalia linked the storm to global warming, while only 4% of such segments about Hurricane Hilary mentioned climate. Just 4% of national TV news segments about the Lahaina, Hawaii, wildfire discussed climate change, while only 10% of segments about catastrophic flooding across the Northeast connected that event to climate change. Similarly, only 5% of segments about the record-shattering heat wave that scorched Texas last June mentioned climate change.

    Climate scientists, including Alvaro Silva from the World Meteorological Organization, have emphasized that a warmer world is predisposed to more frequent and severe climatic disruptions, such as more frequent and intense rainfall and flooding. With regards to tornadoes specifically, scientists have observed a tentative connection between climate change and the conditions necessary for dangerous tornado outbreaks, although the ability to attribute recent trends to climate change is challenging. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions:

  • An added difficulty in determining future tornado frequency and intensity caused by changes in the climate is that tornadoes are too geographically small to be well simulated by climate models. However, models can simulate some of the conditions that contribute to forming severe thunderstorms that often spawn tornadoes. Researchers are working to better understand how the building blocks for tornadoes—atmospheric instability and wind shear—respond to global warming. It is likely that a warmer, more humid world allows for more frequent instability, while it is also possible that a warmer world decreases wind shear. Multiple studies find that the conditions that produce the most severe thunderstorms from which tornadoes may form are more likely as the world warms. Climate change may also cause a shift in the seasonality of severe thunderstorms and the regions that are most likely to be hit.

  • It is urgent that this type of context is consistently incorporated into the major networks’ extreme weather coverage. Notably, Al Roker made the connection between climate change and tornadoes during the May 1 episode of NBC’s Today, while correspondent Maggie Vespa made the connection during the May 8 episode of NBC Nightly News.

    Cover climate-driven extreme weather year round 

    To effectively address the severity of the climate crisis, corporate broadcast networks must extend their focus beyond moments of acute disaster and cover climate links to extreme weather events throughout the year. Media Matters' annual review of 2023 broadcast climate coverage found that coverage of extreme weather peaked in July with climate change mentioned in 54 segments, or 34% of the year's total. This coverage needs to be continuous and integrated into the daily news cycle, however, and not just highlighted during peak incidents.

    Since 2021, Media Matters has urged national TV news to present extreme weather as part of an ongoing, interconnected climate narrative. Broadcast networks play a critical role in making these connections clear to the public, demonstrating how the increasing frequency and severity of these events are manifestations of broader global warming trends. By more consistently linking individual weather events to climate change, news media can enhance public understanding of the crisis' scale and urgency, encouraging collective action to mitigate its impacts.

    Report on global extreme weather events

    Corporate broadcast networks’ coverage of global extreme weather events often does not adequately reflect the severity of these catastrophes. For example, broadcast networks covered the devastating 2022 monsoon season in Pakistan for only 7 minutes across 9 segments after months of rains killed more than 1,000 people and displaced more than 30 million, while the record-breaking Asian heat wave in April 2023, described as the worst in the continent's history, also received scant attention from national TV news.

    This lack of coverage devoted to extreme weather events outside the U.S. risks downplaying the global scope of the climate crisis. As The Associated Press reports:

  • In a world growing increasingly accustomed to wild weather swings, the last few days and weeks have seemingly taken those environmental extremes to a new level. Some climate scientists say they are hard pressed to remember when so much of the world has had its weather on overdrive at the same time.

    “Given that we’ve seen an unprecedented jump in global warmth over the last 11 months, it is not surprising to see worsening climate extremes so early in the year,” said University of Michigan environment dean Jonathan Overpeck. “If this record pace of warming continues, 2024 will likely be a record year of climate disasters and human suffering.”

  • Corporate broadcast networks have a significant opportunity to improve their coverage by consistently focusing on global extreme weather, highlighting that these incidents are not isolated but are part of a worldwide pattern exacerbated by climate change.

    As we approach what is expected to be another record-breaking extreme weather season, it is imperative that media coverage evolves to accurately reflect the urgency and magnitude of these disasters, fostering a more informed public and providing a clearer picture of the global scale of climate challenges.

  • 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, NBC’s Today and Nightly News for any of the terms “weather," “heat,” “temperature,” or “meteorologist” or any variation of the terms “tornado,” “rain,” “wildfire,” or “flood” from May 1, 2024, through May 14, 2024.

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when extreme weather was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of extreme weather. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed extreme weather with one another. We also included weather reports, which we defined as instances when extreme weather was the stated topic of discussion by a meteorologist in front of a green screen or by a host or anchor in a headline report.    

    We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned an extreme weather event, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the host or anchor promoted a segment about extreme weather coming up later in the broadcast.
    We then reviewed each segment or weather report for mentions of the terms “climate” or “global warming.”

    We rounded all times to the nearest minute.