How broadcast TV networks covered climate change in 2019
The volume of climate change coverage on the corporate broadcast nightly and Sunday morning news shows increased 68% from 2018 to 2019. Despite this increase, climate coverage as a whole still made up only 0.7% of overall corporate broadcast nightly and Sunday morning news shows in 2019. The news shows aired 238 minutes of climate change coverage this past year, up from 142 minutes of coverage in 2018. Much of this increase was driven by CBS, which gave more time to and aired more segments about climate change than ABC and NBC combined. New climate legislation, climate activism, and climate becoming a top-tier issue in the Democratic primary were major drivers of overall climate coverage in 2019. But the quality of the coverage was generally shallow. And for the third year in a row, people of color were massively underrepresented in climate coverage -- making up only 10% of guests even though they are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change.
For this study, Media Matters examined 2019 news coverage of climate change on broadcast TV networks, counting and analyzing segments devoted to climate change and segments in which an employee of the network incorporated climate change or engaged with a guest who brought up climate change. We analyzed coverage on the nightly news programs and Sunday morning political shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC. We also analyzed Fox Broadcasting Co.’s syndicated Sunday morning political show, Fox News Sunday. Fox Broadcasting Co. (which is separate from the Fox News cable channel) does not have a nightly news program, so overall there was far less Fox airtime to analyze. In addition, weeknight episodes of PBS Newshour were included for a comparison point with the nightly news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC. PBS Newshour is not, however, included in the full data set.
Top trends from broadcast TV news climate coverage in 2019
- The volume of climate change coverage on the corporate broadcast nightly and Sunday morning news shows increased 68% from 2018 to 2019, from 142 minutes to 238 minutes. However, it still fell short of 260 minutes of coverage aired in 2017.
- Climate change coverage on the corporate broadcast nightly and Sunday morning news shows made up only 0.7% of overall coverage in 2019.
- CBS far outpaced its competitors in the amount of coverage, providing 53% of overall climate segments and 50% of overall minutes of climate coverage. ABC increased both the length and amount of its climate segments from 2018, while NBC’s minutes of coverage actually decreased from 2018.
- Nearly 40% of climate segments aired in August and September, when the U.N. Climate Summit was held in New York City and global climate demonstrations occurred. September featured the highest number of climate segments aired since June 2017.
- People of color made up only 10% of guests who were interviewed or featured in the corporate networks’ climate coverage. Both scientists and women were also underrepresented in climate coverage, making just up 22% and 27% of guests, respectively.
- Several major drivers of climate coverage in 2019 included the Green New Deal, climate activism, extreme weather, and the 2020 election.
- There were no nightly news segments on the Green New Deal. The Sunday morning shows covered it in 39% of its climate segments, though primarily through a political lens.
- Climate activism made up roughly 16% of overall climate coverage on the broadcast networks. Most of these segments focused on activist Greta Thunberg and the youth climate strikes.
- Climate change was mentioned 16 times in segments on extreme heat reports, and 14 times in segments on general extreme weather effects. The networks did a pretty poor job overall in discussing the links between climate change and specific extreme weather events.
- The role of climate in shaping the election, both as a top voter issue and candidate priority, made up 74% of Sunday show coverage, but less than 3% of broadcast nightly climate coverage.
- Solutions or actions in response to climate change were mentioned in roughly 37% of climate segments aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, or Fox, marking a sizable increase from 2017 and 2018.
- PBS Newshour once again outperformed the corporate networks in climate coverage. The program aired 121 climate segments, which accounted for more climate segments than ABC, CBS, and NBC nightly news shows combined.
The overall volume of climate change coverage increased significantly from 2018 to 2019
Climate coverage on the corporate broadcast TV news shows increased 68% from 2018 to 2019. The shows aired a combined 238 minutes of climate change coverage in 2019, compared to just 142 minutes of coverage in 2018.
The amount of climate coverage in 2018 was so pitiful that the corporate broadcast TV news shows had a very low bar to meet in 2019. In fact, one-third of coverage in 2018 came from a single episode of NBC’s Meet the Press in December, and three-fourths of overall coverage occurred in the last three months of 2018.
The amount of climate change coverage in 2019 was still short of the coverage in 2017. That year, the corporate broadcast TV news shows aired approximately 260 minutes of coverage. A majority of that coverage -- a whopping 79% -- was focused on the Trump administration’s actions.
The nightly news shows on corporate broadcast TV networks aired 151 minutes of climate coverage in 2019 -- an increase of 180% from 2018, when these shows aired only 54 minutes of coverage. However, it again falls short of 2017, when these shows aired 164 minutes of climate coverage. In spite of the increase in coverage from 2018 to 2019, climate coverage as a whole still made up only 0.6% of overall corporate broadcast TV nightly news in 2019, showing that these programs’ climate coverage does not adequately reflect the urgency and severity of the climate crisis.
The Sunday morning political shows, by contrast, aired approximately 86 minutes of climate coverage in 2019. This amount of coverage is essentially the same as in 2018, when they collectively aired 87 minutes (with over half of these minutes coming from a single episode). But it falls short of the 95 minutes of climate coverage aired in 2017.
CBS aired double the amount of minutes and segments of climate coverage as its corporate network counterparts combined
CBS was the best-performing corporate broadcast TV network in terms of amount of minutes and total number of segments of climate coverage. CBS covered the issue for 118 minutes on its nightly and Sunday shows across a total of 74 segments. This made up roughly half of the total overall minutes of network climate coverage and 53% of the total segments. CBS Evening News aired 98 minutes in 68 segments of climate coverage, which was more than the time and segment numbers of ABC’s World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News. CBS Evening News in 2019 aired more minutes and segments than all nightly news shows in 2018, combined.
So far, CBS has been the only broadcast network to join Covering Climate Now -- an initiative committed to providing more and better climate coverage -- and participated in its ambitious effort the week of September 15-23 to give climate change sustained coverage. The network also started a dedicated environmental segment called Eye on Earth. Jeff Berardelli, a meteorologist and climate change communicator for the network, has played a huge role in CBS’ climate work, and he has been vocal in incorporating climate into CBS’ news reports. Al Ortiz, CBS News’ vice president of standards and practices, talked up the network’s greater focus on climate in November:
“The real, scientifically predicted consequences of global warming are now being seen all over the world,” Ortiz says in explaining why CBS News decided to join the initiative. “The realization hit many journalists here over the last two years that climate change is the beat of the future – and one that will affect almost every aspect of human life.”
“CBS News’ decision to commit to more climate change coverage is not a play for ratings – the public will decide whether this turns out to be a ratings winner or a ratings loser,” Ortiz explains. “It has become clear to us – in part through polling – that younger people are keenly interested in these stories because they’re the ones who have to live with the consequences.”
NBC aired 32 segments for a total of 72 minutes of climate change coverage on its nightly and Sunday news shows in 2019. The figure shows a slight decrease from its 2018 coverage, when the network aired 78 minutes. This makes NBC the only network to have actually covered climate less in 2019 than it did in 2018, even though it aired a climate-focused reporting series in September. The network did, however, cover climate more on its Sunday show Meet the Press than other network Sunday show, airing 36 minutes of coverage. In 2018, Meet the Press aired 54 minutes, with almost all of it coming from a single episode on the last Sunday in 2018. NBC’s poor 2019 climate coverage is even more ironic because Meet the Press’ host Chuck Todd called climate change “a crisis that's been ignored for too long” in the last episode of 2018.
Once again, ABC was the worst-performing corporate broadcast network in climate coverage. The network aired a combined 34 minutes of climate coverage across 29 segments in 2019. ABC’s 34 minutes of climate coverage is remarkably a 224% increase from 2018 when it aired less than 11 minutes of climate coverage. It’s still less than its 2017 total, when it aired 57 minutes. In 2019, World News Tonight spent more time covering the new British royal baby Archie in one week than it did covering climate change in the entirety of 2018. Its coverage in 2019 again fell short of its counterparts at CBS and NBC, and its climate coverage lags now behind these networks for the seventh year in a row.
Fox News Sunday aired 14 minutes of climate coverage in 2019, up from 10 minutes in 2018. The 2019 coverage fell well short of Fox’s 2017 coverage, when it spent 42 minutes covering climate. Fox News Sunday aired a total of four segments this year. All four of these segments discussed the Green New Deal, and one of them featured talk radio host Rush Limbaugh throwing numerous climate denial tropes against the wall and host Chris Wallace failing to rebut him once.
Nearly 40% of climate segments aired in August and September
In 2019, 38% of climate segments -- 53 out of a total of 139 -- occurred in August and September. Both months saw major climate-related developments. For example, in August, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a major report detailing the risks that climate change has on world food production. ABC’s World News Tonight and CBS Evening News covered this report. Alaska suffered through a record-breaking heat wave that was coming off the back of one of its hottest summers ever -- that was covered by CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News. And as wildfires raged across the Amazon rainforest, which had massive implications for accelerating climate change, the three corporate broadcast nightly news shows aired at least two segments each that mentioned climate change when reporting on these fires.
In September, CBS participated in an ambitious journalistic effort known as Covering Climate Now, in which over 300 media outlets around the globe conducted sustained climate coverage throughout the week of September 15 leading up to the U.N. Climate Summit held on September 23. CBS Evening News aired nine climate segments from September 15-23. While NBC did not sign on as a partner to Covering Climate Now, it conducted its own weeklong series called Climate in Crisis. NBC Nightly News aired eight climate segments from September 15-21. A week of climate actions including a massive youth climate strike on September 20 was also timed to coincide with the climate summit held in New York City.
Twenty-nine climate segments aired in September, making it the month with the most climate segments on the corporate broadcast news shows since Media Matters started collecting this data from 2009. The previous record was 28 segments that aired in June 2017, which was the month Trump announced that his administration would pull out of the Paris Climate Accord. These higher numbers reflect an increase in overall media climate coverage in September. The Media and Climate Change Observatory at the University of Colorado found that “September media attention to climate change and global warming was at its highest level globally in nearly a decade.” Additionally, Google found the largest number of searches for the term “climate change” during the week of September 22-28 in the search engine’s history.
Even if we discount the increase in coverage around the climate events in August and September, 2019 coverage still eclipses 2018, when broadcast news coverage was awful and the networks aired only 80 segments for the year. On the flip side, combined climate segments across the corporate broadcast TV nightly news shows in 2019 were in single digits for six out of 12 months.
Once again, people of color were woefully underrepresented in climate segments
The broadcast networks featured 230 people in their news segments on climate change in 2019, excluding the networks’ anchors, hosts, and correspondents. The people featured in these segments were invited on as guests, shown speaking in video footage, or quoted. Once again, these people were overwhelmingly white men.
Out of 230 people featured, only 24, or 10%, were people of color. NBC and CBS had seven and 13 people of color featured in segments, respectively. ABC featured only one, a marching student protester who was briefly interviewed during a segment on the global climate strike on September 20. In 2018, ABC also featured only one person of color in a climate segment, making it the worst performing network for featuring people of color in climate change segments.
Fox News Sunday featured three people of color. In 2018, Fox News Sunday featured only two people of color.
2019 marked the third year in a row that people of color made up a dismal 10% or less of overall people featured in network news climate segments. More and more research shows that climate change disproportionately affects minority communities across the country. These communities contribute the least to climate issues like air pollution, yet suffer the most from it. Polling also shows that minority communities care more about climate change than white communities. With this growing body of research and an uptick in the amount of climate segments in 2019, corporate broadcast news shows should have prominently featured people of color to discuss climate issues.
Additionally, despite the numerous segments on the Amazon rainforest in 2019, only two of them referenced indigenous communities and their fight against climate change. One mention was on a CBS Evening News segment about Amazon deforestation on April 22. It noted that it is important to engage indigenous communities in climate solutions. Another came on the August 21 episode of NBC Nightly News, when NBC’s Anne Thompson mentioned that an indigenous Amazon tribal chief fears the loss of the forest. In both segments, the shows referenced indigenous people only in the text, and did not actually interview, quote, or show them in footage, so they were not counted as people featured in segments for the purposes of this study.
Women were underrepresented in climate segments as well
In 2019, just 63 out of 230 people featured in climate segments, or 27%, were women. CBS featured 36 women in its segments, which was the highest number among the corporate networks (although as a percentage of people featured in these CBS segments, it is still a pretty dismal 26%). On NBC, 16 out of 60 people featured were women. ABC featured eight women out of 24 total people, while Fox News featured three women out of 10 total people. In 2018, just 19% of people featured were women, while in 2017, just 15% of people featured were women.
Women of color were even less prominently featured. ABC, as noted above, featured just one. CBS featured four: New Mexico’s first Latina governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham; Miami Beach’s Chief Resilience Officer Susanne Torriente; Arctic biologist Allison Fong; and Teresa Doley, a young resident of Maryland interested in electric vehicles. NBC featured just three women of color: journalists Kimberly Atkins and Heather McGhee on different episodes of Meet the Press, and a marching protester in an NBC Nightly News segment about the September 20 climate strike. Fox News Sunday featured just two, airing footage of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and speaking with Washington Post columnist Donna Edwards, both on its February 10 episode.
In 2018, only one woman of color was featured in segments about climate change on any of the networks.
These poor representation numbers are a troubling reminder that women typically play second fiddle to white men when discussing climate change. Yet women are more likely to “worry about global warming, think that it is currently harming the U.S., and support certain climate change mitigation policies” than men. They are also more likely to suffer the impacts of climate change. A lack of women’s voices in media coverage of climate change is part of a pattern of racism and sexism that these broadcast networks need to address.
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and President Donald Trump both featured the most in this year’s study. They appeared nine times each across the networks -- interviewed, quoted, or shown in footage. In 2018, Trump appeared in 10 climate segments, the most of any guest. Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee had the next most amount of appearances, with five. (Inslee was a presidential candidate for almost six months in 2019 and made climate change a prominent issue on his platform.)
Important drivers of climate change coverage in overall media received mixed amounts of coverage in 2019 on the corporate broadcast TV nightly and Sunday news shows
The ambitious Green New Deal, energetic climate activism, climate-fueled extreme weather, and the 2020 election were all important drivers of climate change coverage from varied media outlets in 2019. While these issues helped bolster the volume of broadcast TV news coverage when compared to 2018, in many cases, the quality of this coverage was still lacking.
The Green New Deal was not discussed on the nightly news shows, while Sunday shows fell victim to tactical framing
The Green New Deal, introduced in February 2019 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), is the most ambitious climate plan ever proposed in the United States. The plan received a large amount of online media coverage within the first few days of its release. By April, it had really helped push climate change coverage into the mainstream media (although not all of that coverage was good). The plan will likely drive sustained coverage going into the 2020 presidential election, as nearly all of the Democratic presidential candidates have taken a position on it.
Even though the Green New Deal was a huge part of the overall climate story in 2019, none of the nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, or NBC aired a segment on the proposal. It was relegated to one passing mention that had nothing to do with climate change and another passing mention that was a pun about Trump’s interest in buying Greenland.
The Green New Deal was, however, discussed in nine segments on the Sunday shows in 2019. In eight of these segments, the plan was framed as a political issue -- such as asking whether it would be viable for Democrats or hurt their chances in the election -- rather than as a possible solution to the climate crisis.
On the February 17 episode of NBC’s Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd read a few recent headlines about the topic, asking Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, “Are you concerned the perception of the Democratic Party is going to move too far to the left in order to scare away those swing voters that you’ve won over to win control of the House?”
Similarly, on the April 14 episode of ABC’s This Week, host George Stephanopoulos asked then-presidential candidate Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), “You support the Green New Deal. You support Medicare for All. We heard the Senate Republican leader this week -- Mitch McConnell -- say they're going to make the election a referendum on socialism. Are you worried that policies like that will make Democrats vulnerable?”
Former Vox correspondent Carlos Maza (who previously worked for Media Matters) succinctly described this practice of discussing the politics of an issue versus its actual benefits as “tactical framing”:
So far, news coverage of the proposal has been defined by a focus on political questions: Will the proposal divide centrist and progressive Democrats? Will House Speaker Nancy Pelosi throw her support behind it? Does it give Republicans an opening to attack Democrats as radical in 2020?
Those questions represent “tactical framing” — an approach to news coverage that focuses on strategy and polling rather than a policy’s substantive benefits. And while the political viability of a policy proposal is important, research shows that a fixation on strategy can undermine people’s ability to make informed choices.
In their book Spiral of Cynicism, researchers Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph Cappella found that tactical framing in news coverage increases audiences’ cynicism, making it more likely that audiences will believe politicians won’t keep their promises or are only acting out of their own self-interest.
Those findings have major implications for the way news networks cover big policy ideas like the Green New Deal. The goal of political journalism should be to give people the information they need to be good voters. That means analyzing policy proposals on their merit and resisting the urge to treat all policy debates like a partisan game.
Sadly, the Sunday show discussions fell into this trap.
Climate activism was discussed in 16% of overall segments
Activism played a crucial role in elevating climate change to a mainstream news topic in 2019. According to the NBC News website, “Greta Thunberg and mass protests defined the year in climate change.” Young people protested in unprecedented numbers across the globe to draw attention to the worsening climate crisis. A huge global climate strike on March 15 drew 1.4 million people across 123 countries, and a strike on September 20 became the “biggest day of climate action in planetary history,” with over 4 million protesters, and drew increased media coverage across news outlets.
Out of 139 segments in our study, 22, or 16%, mentioned climate activism. Most of the segments were about the climate strikes and Greta Thunberg. Seven of them focused on the September 20 climate strike, while only one, on NBC Nightly News, discussed the March 15 climate strike. Six segments focused specifically on Greta Thunberg; three of them detailed her speech to the U.N. in October, two mentioned she was named Time’s Person of the Year, and she was interviewed in one segment on CBS Evening News on August 12.
Greta Thunberg was a media sensation in 2019. While it’s appropriate that network news segments highlighted her efforts, these shows generally failed to mention other activists doing important work. Only two other climate activists were actually named in network news shows in 2019: a student named Alex Roth, mentioned on CBS Evening News on September 20, and another student, Alexandria Villasenor, mentioned on NBC Nightly News on March 15. The youth climate movement is diverse, and the media need to do a better job of showing that diversity in their coverage.
Two segments, both on Sunday shows, featured former Secretary of State John Kerry discussing his new activist group World War Zero. World War Zero is only in its initial stages and was planning to start holding town meetings sometime in 2020. In contrast, there was only one segment each on actions organized by the Sunrise Movement, which has played a huge role in getting climate change to the forefront of the national agenda, and the Extinction Rebellion, whose protests shut down London in May. However, neither of the groups were identified by name.
Climate change mentions in extreme weather segments were a mixed bag
Extreme weather events were a threat to humans and ecosystems globally in 2019, and the fingerprints of climate change were all over them. In March, some of the worst flooding in recorded history hit the U.S. Midwest, while Cyclone Idai in Mozambique was an extremely intense storm that ended up being one of the worst weather-related disasters ever in the Southern Hemisphere. Heat waves and extreme heat affected much of Europe and Greenland this past summer, and Alaska had its hottest year in recorded history. In September, Hurricane Dorian broke intensity records and caused massive damage in the Bahamas. Drought and hot temperatures helped fuel dangerous and deadly wildfires in Australia, while wildfires in the Amazon led to concern that deforestation could lead to a “tipping point” after which the forest can’t recover and would worsen climate change.
After studying events like these, climate scientists have a better understanding of how climate change affects certain types of extreme weather.
Despite collectively airing hundreds of segments covering various extreme weather events in 2019, the nightly and Sunday news shows on the corporate broadcast networks aired only 42 segments that connected them to climate change.
When networks did connect extreme weather events to climate change, it was mostly when reporting on extreme heat. The networks aired 16 segments that mentioned climate change when discussing extreme heat. The majority of extreme heat segments were about the heat waves in both the continental U.S. and the Arctic region and Alaska.
The networks mentioned climate change seven times when reporting on wildfires in the Arctic, Australia, and California.
Climate change was mentioned nine times during segments about the destructive Amazon wildfires in August. The atmosphere above the Amazon rainforest has become increasingly dry over the past two decades, and while NASA states that half of that increase is due to climate change, the other half is due to ongoing human activity -- most importantly controlled burning of the forest for agricultural and grazing purposes. Deforestation in the Amazon recently surged to its highest point in a decade, and the fear is that the Amazon is losing valuable trees that help store carbon dioxide, and the burning is helping release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Mentions of climate change in these nine Amazon segments were brief, but they were generally clear in explaining the climate issue with the Amazon fires. On the August 21 episode of NBC Nightly News, climate scientist Michael Mann discussed the fires and said, “The impact is devastating because it’s destroying unique, irreplaceable ecosystems and it’s worsening climate change at the same time.” CBS correspondent Ben Tracy stated the problem clearly as well on the August 24 episode of CBS Evening News, noting, “The Amazon is vital to the fight against climate change, absorbing heat-trapping carbon dioxide. But the more it burns, the more CO2 it puts in the atmosphere.”
The fact that the Amazon fires could accelerate climate change was also mentioned in the August 21 episode of ABC’s World News Tonight, but this episode also repeated a common misunderstanding about the Amazon. ABC correspondent James Longman stated, “The Amazon rainforest produces 20% of the oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere.” Though this claim is inaccurate and is based on a misunderstanding, either this talking point or the misleading claim calling the Amazon the “Lungs of the Earth” popped up in six of the network news’ Amazon wildfire segments.
There were five segments each that mentioned climate change in reporting on flooding or drought. Four of the climate mentions for flooding came while the networks reported on the “apocalyptic” Venice flooding. Two climate mentions within drought reporting came in the context of how climate-fueled drought is affecting the wine industries in both California and Italy, while one mention, on the October 2 episode of CBS Evening News, connected climate change to both drought and extreme heat across the southern U.S.
Just one segment -- on the September 15 episode of NBC’s Meet the Press -- mentioned climate change in relation to Hurricane Dorian. Corporate broadcast TV news shows have consistently been terrible at linking climate change to hurricanes. Hurricane Dorian was an immensely powerful storm that gained much of its strength from above-average water temperatures. Scientists are becoming increasingly confident in the links between more dangerous hurricanes and climate change, but network news is failing to point out this connection to its viewers.
These numbers are still an increase over the previous two years. In 2018, the shows aired only nine segments that connect climate change to specific extreme weather events, while in 2017, they aired only six, even though both years had record extreme weather events.
The broadcast networks aired 14 segments that mentioned climate change and extreme weather generally, all as a passing mention. For example, on the April 14 episode of NBC’s Meet the Press, Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), who had just announced his candidacy for the presidency, said climate change was his top priority, stating, “I was just in Hamburg, Iowa, a little town that's been there since 1858 -- never been flooded before. Now it's been underwater. I was in Seminole Springs and saw a community burned down in California. I was in Miami Beach when I saw the roads have to be built up. People are now getting this.”
In 2018, the networks aired 11 general mentions of climate change and extreme weather, mostly in the context of the major reports by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and National Climate Assessment.
These trends show that extreme weather is often used as an example that climate change is happening but mentions of climate within this context are often superficial. When it comes to reporting on specific extreme weather events, climate change mentions come in a small minority of segments, and when the mentions do occur, they are typically brief.
The prominence of climate in the Democratic race for president drove Sunday show climate coverage, but it was almost completely shut out of broadcast news coverage
The 2016 presidential race all but ignored climate change. In stark contrast, the climate crisis has emerged as both a key voter issue and a top priority for candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Every candidate who entered the Democratic field in 2019 did so with a strong platform on climate -- many endorsing the Green New Deal -- and a pledge to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. Jay Inslee, who has since bowed out of the race, even ran as a climate candidate, marking the first time ever that climate has featured so prominently in a presidential race.
The prioritization of climate change among candidates, mirrored by the high rank Democratic voters have assigned the issue, has helped elevate climate in the media. Among broadcast networks’ Sunday news shows, 17 out of 23 segments mentioning climate (74%) focused on climate as an election issue or the Green New Deal as a key policy position for candidates. But only three out of 116 segments (3%) of broadcast nightly news coverage referred to the role of climate in the elections or spoke to candidates about their plans to address the crisis. ABC’s nightly program made no reference to the role of climate in the elections. NBC had two mentions, while CBS had one mention.
On March 1, CBS Evening News announced Jay Inslee's entry to the 2020 presidential race, noting, “His central campaign issue will be climate change.”
On March 17, NBC Nightly News covered candidates stumping in Iowa and featured a clip of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) telling a crowd of supporters, “Day one as your president, I will sign us back into the international climate change agreement.”
On June 16, NBC Nightly News interviewed Jay Inslee on the singular issue driving his White House bid. Inslee stated, “My big idea is that America needs to defeat the climate crisis.”
ABC’s weekend program This Week with George Stephanopoulos mentioned climate in the context of the election in four of five total climate segments including two interviews with candidates Jay Inslee and Tom Steyer. Half of CBS’ Face the Nation climate segments, three of six, discussed the election. An interview with Inslee accounted for one of the segments. All of Fox News Sunday’s climate segments were in the context of the election including two interviews with Democratic nominee hopefuls Pete Buttigieg and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. Six out of the eight segments on NBC’s Meet the Press that mentioned climate were in the context of the election including interviews with candidates Inslee and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as well as an interview with Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez.
Climate change’s impacts on plants and wildlife featured the most in coverage, while impacts on public health and national security were barely mentioned
One-quarter of overall climate segments in 2019 discussed climate change’s impact on plants and animal life including marine and aquatic habitats. CBS Evening News aired more than two times the number of segments on this issue than its ABC and NBC counterparts combined. The breadth and scope of CBS’ coverage on this issue compared to its counterparts was impressive. It was the only network to cover the IPCC reports on biodiversity and ocean warming. It covered Arctic issues, including climate change’s effects on penguins, reindeer, and fish migration; it covered aquatic issues, including climate change’s effects on Pacific whales and Atlantic sharks. It also covered sequoia and Joshua trees and climate change’s role in accelerating drought that is affecting wine production.
NBC aired eight climate segments on plants and wildlife -- including segments on coral reefs, Maine lobsters, and coffee in Central America. ABC aired five such segments, including segments on the Endangered Species Act rollback and climate change’s effects on mass bird deaths.
One 2019 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that climate change could shave off over 10% of the U.S. GDP by 2100. The broadcast networks mentioned the economic impacts of climate change 15 times this year.
Climate change is also causing more abnormal weather trends; this was apparent in 2019, as July 2019 was the hottest month in recorded history. Abnormal weather trends were mentioned 19 times by networks in 2019, with CBS accounting for 14 of these mentions, NBC for five, and ABC none. Important sea-level rise studies were also released in 2019; one such study found that rising seas could affect three times more people by 2050 than previously thought, while another found that even with emissions cuts in line with the Paris deal, there will still be large sea level rise. The networks discussed these impacts 10 times in 2019.
For the second year in a row, climate change’s threats to national security and public health got very little attention. The Worldwide Threat Assessment, prepared by the director of national intelligence and released in January, linked climate change to growing insecurity around that world. National security threats as a result of climate change were only discussed in six segments in 2019. Climate change is also a massive risk to human health -- in June 2019, 70 major medical groups in the U.S. called climate change “a true public health emergency.” Despite these risks, the networks aired only six public health segments in 2019. In 2018, there were only three public health segments and just one national security segment.
ABC, once again, was the worst performer when it came to discussing climate impacts. The network aired only one single segment each on public health and sea-level rise. It did not air a single segment on abnormal weather caused by climate change.
CBS did the best job of covering climate science among the corporate broadcast networks
CBS featured 34 scientists in its climate segments in 2019, an increase from 2018, when it featured 11. CBS was also the only network to feature women scientists; there were a total of six. CBS also led the networks in featuring segments about scientific research on climate change -- airing 12 segments on the topic. It was the only network to air segments about the IPCC biodiversity report from May and the ocean warming report from September. CBS aired four segments specifically on scientific research about climate change’s effects on the Arctic region. And while reporting during the July heat wave, it was also the only network to feature a study from the Union of Concerned Scientists that found that by midcentury, the “average number of days per year with a heat index above 100°F will more than double.”
NBC featured 13 scientists in its climate segments in 2019. This is a decrease from 2018, when the network featured 16. NBC aired only three segments on scientific research in 2019. In 2018, the network aired 12.
ABC featured only three scientists in 2019, up from one in 2018. ABC also aired seven segments on scientific research in 2019. It was the only network to report on CO2 levels hitting 415 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human history and the only network to mention a study showing dire climate effects on the bird population.
No scientists were featured on the Sunday shows in 2019. The only mention of scientific research during the December 1 episode of Meet the Press, when Chuck Todd commented on new global warming studies, noting, “In one study, the old projections of flooding and high tide by the year 2050 -- in this case, in Southern Vietnam -- were updated to look more like this. And not -- there’s a lot more water there than Southern Vietnam, with virtually the entire area underwater now by 2050.” This year marked the third time in four years that a climate scientist did not appear on the Sunday shows.
Overall, only 22% of people featured in 2019 corporate broadcast news climate segments were scientists. In 2018, scientists made up 25% of people featured, and in 2017, scientists made up just 15% of those featured on the news shows.
There was just one instance of climate denial without pushback on corporate broadcast TV networks, a vast improvement over the previous two years
The most egregious instance of a speaker pushing climate denial without getting any pushback occurred on the February 17 episode of Fox News Sunday. While discussing Trump’s election strategy, host Chris Wallace asked his guest Rush Limbaugh, “How potent an issue do you think the president has, and how much do you think he’ll make this case that the Democrats want to make this a socialist country?” He also mentioned the Green New Deal in a follow-up question. In response, Limbaugh went on a rant that included this bit:
RUSH LIMBAUGH: I know young people, Chris, who really think that by the time they're 65, the country, the world is not going to be habitable because of climate change, which is another hoax. There's no evidence for it. Climate change is nothing but a bunch of computer models that attempt to tell us what's going to happen in 50 years or 30. Notice the predictions are never for next year or the next 10 years, they're always for way, way, way, way out there, when none of us are going to be around or alive to know whether or not they were true. In the meantime, they get to push for more government, big government, more tax increases, more control over people.
Wallace did not correct or question any of Limbaugh’s claims.
This year marks a decline over the previous two years in climate denial being aired on broadcast TV news without pushback. Climate denial without pushback occurred far more in 2017 -- 13 segments featured Trump’s quote calling climate change a “hoax” but did not provide any pushback that year -- while it occurred seven times in 2018.
There were four other instances of outright or lukewarm climate denial in 2019 that did receive adequate pushback.
Also in 2019, 13% of all climate segments -- 18 out of 139 -- mentioned any of the Trump administration’s statements or actions on climate change. This is a precipitous drop from 2018, in which 33% of segments mentioned Trump, and from 2017, in which 79% of segments mentioned Trump.
Since the start of Trump’s presidency, his administration has rolled back 95 key environmental rules, many of which have huge climate implications. In 2019, only two segments -- one on the Endangered Species Act and one on the vehicle emissions rules -- talked about Trump administration rollbacks of key environmental rules in the context of climate change. One segment made a general reference to the administration’s environmental rollbacks. This is an embarrassingly low number, as several other major rollbacks with climate implications, including on methane leaks and the Clean Power Plan, were initiated or finalized in 2019.
Solutions to climate change were mentioned in 37% of climate coverage
Out of 139 climate segments that aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox in 2019, 52, or 37%, mentioned potential solutions or actions related to addressing climate change. This is almost twice the amount from 2018, in which only 20% mentioned solutions or responses to climate change.
CBS aired 29 solutions segments, which is more than the combined number of segments NBC and ABC aired. This constituted 39% of CBS’ overall climate coverage. NBC aired 13 solutions segments, which made up 41% of its overall coverage, and ABC aired seven segments, which made up just 24% of its overall coverage. Fox, meanwhile, aired three solutions segments, which made up 75% of its overall coverage. These three segments discussed the Green New Deal.
Climate adaptation and renewable energy technologies were the most common forms of solutions discussed in these segments. Discussions around advocacy and direct action, such as youth climate activism, made up a sizable share of solutions segments in 2019. In 2018, there was only one segment on these awareness-raising campaigns. The Green New Deal and taking systemic action to tackle climate change were also mentioned in 2019.
Multiple studies have shown that media coverage of solutions to climate change can help spur more collective action from viewers. Much of this shift to talking about solutions is being driven by TV weathercasters, who are often trusted and knowledgeable members of local news.
PBS continues to lead the way in airing climate change coverage
In addition to analyzing climate change coverage on the corporate broadcast networks, we examined coverage on public broadcaster PBS' weekday nightly news show, PBS NewsHour.
Over the past six years, PBS NewsHour has outpaced its broadcast counterparts in climate reporting, and the trend continued in 2019. PBS Newshour aired 121 climate segments, an average of 10 segments per month. This is more coverage than we found from the ABC, CBS and NBC nightly news shows combined, which collectively aired 116 segments this past year. It is also a huge increase from PBS’ numbers from the previous two years -- in 2018, PBS Newshour aired 72 segments that addressed climate change, and it aired 69 such segments in 2017.
PBS aired 38 segments on extreme weather, 24 segments on climate change’s impacts on plants and wildlife, and 23 segments on climate change playing a role in the Democratic primaries and the upcoming presidential election. It also aired more segments on Trump administration rollbacks (13 segments) and climate change’s impact on public health (11 segments) than the corporate broadcast networks combined.
PBS aired 51 segments on climate change solutions, making up 42% of its overall climate coverage. This is more than double the amount of solutions segments from 2018, when they aired 23.
For more on PBS' climate coverage, click here.
Charts by John Whitehouse.
This report analyzes coverage of climate change from January 1, 2019, to December 31, 2019, on four nightly news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and PBS’ NewsHour) and four Sunday morning political shows (ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos, CBS' Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, and Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday) based on transcripts from the Nexis database.
Our analysis included any segment devoted to climate change, as well as any substantial mention of climate change (a paragraph or more of a news transcript or a definitive statement by a person employed by the network). The study did not include instances in which a guest brought up climate change without being prompted to do so by a network employee unless the network employee subsequently addressed climate change.
To identify news segments that discussed climate change, we searched for derivations of the following terms in Nexis: climate change, global warming, changing climate, climate warms, climate warming, warming climate, warmer climate, warming planet, warmer planet, warming globe, warmer globe, global temperatures, rising temperatures, hotter temperatures, climate science, climate scientist, Paris climate, climate accord, Paris accord, climate agreement, Paris agreement, climate deal, climate crisis, and green new deal.
We defined network employees as hosts, anchors, and correspondents. When counting guests, we included network employees if they appeared as part of a roundtable discussion on a Sunday morning political show. We did not include teasers if they were for segments that aired later on the same program. We acquired time stamps from iQ media. If a significant portion of a segment was not related to climate change, such as in a report on a politician giving a speech about climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the economy, only the portions of the segment that discussed climate change were counted. For the Sunday morning political shows, which often feature wide-ranging discussions on multiple topics, we counted only the relevant portion of such conversations. In the text of this report, all time counts have been rounded to the nearest minute and all percentages rounded to the nearest whole.