How broadcast TV networks covered climate change in 2020
As the coronavirus pandemic raged across the U.S. and took up much of the airwaves last year, every nightly news and Sunday morning political program on ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as the Sunday show on Fox Broadcasting Co., aired fewer minutes and segments of climate change coverage than they did in 2019. The overall climate change coverage on corporate broadcast TV nightly news and Sunday shows plummeted by 53%. These shows covered climate change for a total of 112 total minutes in 2020 -- the lowest amount of coverage since 2016.
This drastic decrease in climate coverage occurred despite numerous climate-fueled extreme weather events, important reports and news about climate change’s effects on Earth, repeated assaults on the environment by the Trump administration, and a presidential election in which climate change took center stage. Additionally, white men were overwhelmingly featured as guests in climate coverage for at least the fourth year in a row, giving short shrift to people of color and the communities most impacted by both the pandemic and climate change.
Finally, and for the first time ever in this annual study, Media Matters analyzed climate coverage on the morning news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC. The morning shows aired a combined 267 minutes of climate coverage in 2020, and NBC’s Today outperformed its counterparts in minutes and segments of coverage. Even so, climate coverage as a whole still made up only 0.4% of overall coverage on corporate broadcast morning, nightly and Sunday morning news shows in 2020.
For this study, Media Matters examined 2020 news coverage of climate change on broadcast TV networks, counting and analyzing segments devoted to climate change and those in which a network figure incorporated climate change or engaged with a guest who brought up the issue. 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 there was far less overall Fox airtime to analyze than the other broadcast networks. In addition, weeknight episodes of PBS NewsHour were analyzed for a comparison point with the nightly news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC, but they are not included in the full data set.
For the first time ever in this annual study, Media Matters also analyzed climate coverage on the morning news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC. The typical running time for these programs is two hours, with the exception of the weekday third hour and Saturday and Sunday editions of NBC’s Today, and the Sunday edition of ABC's Good Morning America. Today and Good Morning America air seven days a week, while CBS This Morning airs six days a week. Due to this volume of airtime, their unique format which includes weather reports, and the lack of year-to-year comparative data from previous studies, analysis of the network’s morning shows is reviewed separately.
Top trends from broadcast TV news climate coverage in 2020
- The volume of corporate broadcast TV news coverage of climate change -- nightly news shows and Sunday morning political shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC -- plummeted from 238 minutes in 2019 to just 112 minutes in 2020, constituting a 53% decrease.
- Every network decreased the number of climate segments (with the exception of Fox, which aired the same amount of segments) and total time they spent covering the issue from 2019 to 2020. NBC aired the most minutes of climate coverage in 2020 -- 38 -- while CBS and ABC aired 36 minutes and 32 minutes of coverage, respectively. CBS aired the most segments -- 22 -- while NBC and ABC aired 19 and 18 segments, respectively. Fox Broadcasting Co. aired six minutes of climate coverage across four segments on its Sunday morning political program.
- Corporate broadcast TV news mostly failed to explain the links between the coronavirus and climate change, mentioning them only three times on nightly news shows. By contrast, broadcast morning shows made the connection 10 times.
- The 89 guests featured in broadcast TV climate segments in 2020 were predominantly white males, which continues a trend that goes back to at least 2017. People of color made up only 8% of guests who were interviewed or featured in the corporate broadcast networks’ climate coverage. Women made up 28% of guests -- and of the 89 total guests, only 6 were women of color.
- Twenty-two segments out of 63 total -- 35% of all climate segments on nightly news and Sunday political shows in 2020 -- aired during September, making it the best-performing month for broadcast TV news of climate coverage for the second year running. Notably, September’s coverage was heavily dominated by the destructive wildfires in the western U.S.
- Three months -- March, April, and June -- featured no nightly or Sunday political show segments on climate.
- Major drivers of climate coverage in 2020 included the Australian and western U.S. wildfires, other major extreme weather events, and the 2020 presidential election, including discussions of President Joe Biden’s climate plan. Taken together, segments on these topics accounted for 75% of all climate coverage -- 47 out of 63 segments.
- Corporate broadcast nightly news and Sunday morning shows aired only 18 segments on climate solutions in 2020, accounting for 29% of all climate coverage. In 2019, climate solutions represented 37% of total climate coverage.
- PBS NewsHour’s climate coverage declined 58% from 2019 to 2020. The program aired 58 climate segments in 2020, compared to 121 segments in 2019. Despite this decrease, PBS NewsHour was still the best-performing nightly news show for climate coverage in 2020, airing nearly as many segments as the other broadcast networks combined. PBS NewsHour, however, is not included in the full dataset.
- For the first time ever, Media Matters also analyzed the morning news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC -- these programs aired 267 minutes of climate coverage combined across 158 segments. NBC dominated this coverage, which is partly due to the fact that the network has an extra hour in its morning show. NBC’s Today aired 121 minutes of coverage across 75 segments; CBS This Morning aired 89 minutes across 51 segments; and ABC’s Good Morning America aired 58 minutes across 32 segments.
- All together, morning news, nightly news, and Sunday political shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox aired just over 6 hours of climate coverage -- approximately 380 minutes -- across 221 segments in 2020.
- Combined climate coverage across all corporate broadcast news programs -- morning news, nightly news, and Sunday morning political shows -- accounted for only 0.4% of programming in 2020.
The overall volume of climate change coverage decreased significantly from 2019 to 2020
Climate change coverage on corporate broadcast TV nightly news and Sunday morning political shows decreased by 53% from 2019 to 2020, going from 238 minutes to 112 minutes. Furthermore, the total climate coverage in 2020 was also a 21% decrease from 2018, when broadcast TV networks pitifully aired a combined 142 minutes of coverage. In fact, in the 12 years that Media Matters has been producing this study, 2020 ranks as the fifth-worst year for climate coverage overall. This steep drop is part of an emerging pattern of boom and bust climate coverage on broadcast TV news that exposes how inconsistent climate reporting has been over the last several years, being subject to disruption and overshadowed by competing news cycles.
Every nightly news and Sunday morning political show decreased the amount of airtime and segments of climate coverage. CBS’ climate coverage took the biggest hit
The overall volume of climate change coverage decreased for every broadcast TV nightly news and Sunday political program from 2019 to 2020. Combined minutes of nightly news coverage of climate change fell 54%, from 151 minutes in 2019 to just 69 minutes in 2020, while the combined minutes of Sunday morning show coverage of climate change fell 50%, from 86 minutes in 2019 to just 43 minutes in 2020.
While the total minutes of climate change coverage on nightly and Sunday shows in 2020 was lower than in 2018, there was slightly more climate coverage aired on just broadcast nightly news shows last year -- 69 minutes in 2020 compared to 55 in 2018. This is because one-third of overall climate coverage in 2018 came from a single episode of NBC’s Sunday political show, Meet the Press, in December of that year.
Climate coverage on ABC’s This Week in 2020 actually outperformed its 2019 coverage -- the program aired 20 minutes of climate coverage in 2020 compared to 17 minutes the previous year. This was the only improvement in coverage from 2019 to 2020 across all of the nightly news and Sunday shows on corporate broadcast networks.
Overall, the total minutes of CBS’ climate coverage on nightly news and Sunday shows from 2020 to 2019 fell by 69% -- a spectacular drop. NBC’s coverage fell by 47%, and ABC’s fell by only 6%. Additionally, ABC’s total minutes of coverage actually increased by 191% in 2020 compared to 2018, when it aired just 11 minutes discussing climate change. Total minutes of coverage on both CBS and NBC fell from 2018 to 2020.
CBS Evening News aired the most minutes of climate coverage compared to its nightly news counterparts for at least the fifth year in a row, even though its overall climate coverage fell drastically from 2019 when the network made up half the overall minutes of nightly news coverage across the broadcast TV networks. CBS Evening News aired 29 minutes of climate coverage in 2020, NBC Nightly News aired 28 minutes, and ABC’s World News Tonight aired just 12 minutes.
CBS Evening News also aired the most climate segments in 2020 compared to its counterparts. The program aired 20 segments, while NBC Nightly News aired 15 segments and ABC’s World News Tonight aired 14. The amount of climate segments on the nightly news shows fell from 2019 to 2020, with CBS Evening News’ decline being the most pronounced. In 2019, the program aired 68 climate segments, more than twice as many as its nightly news counterparts on ABC and NBC, which each ran 24 climate segments that year.
In 2020, ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS’ Face the Nation, Fox News Corp.’s Fox News Sunday, and NBC’s Meet the Press aired a combined 14 segments discussing climate change compared to 23 segments in 2019, 24 segments in 2018, and 25 segments in 2017. There were 43 total minutes of climate coverage on the broadcast networks’ Sunday political news shows in 2020, compared to 86 minutes in 2019, 87 minutes in 2018, and 95 minutes in 2017.
ABC’s This Week aired the most number of minutes of climate coverage on the Sunday shows last year, with 20 minutes across four segments. This represented 47% of all Sunday shows climate change coverage in 2020. NBC’s Meet the Press aired 10 minutes of coverage across four segments, CBS’ Face the Nation aired eight minutes across two segments, and Fox News Sunday aired just six minutes across four segments. With the exception of This Week, all of these were a decline in their coverage from 2019.
In what has become a disturbing trend, ABC was overall the worst-performing network in its total amount of climate coverage. It aired the fewest number of minutes and segments of overall climate coverage in 2020 compared to its corporate network counterparts, though it did lead in coverage among the Sunday shows. This is now the eighth year in a row that ABC’s overall climate coverage has lagged compared to CBS and NBC.
Coronavirus coverage understandably ate into climate coverage in 2020. But that’s still no excuse for such a steep decline from 2019
Unlike other years, the reason for the decline of climate coverage in 2020 is easily identifiable and almost certainly due to the deadly coronavirus pandemic that dominated news cycles for much of the year.
Even given the understandable focus on the pandemic, when considering the sheer amount of climate stories in 2020 -- including climate-fueled extreme weather events, the Trump administration’s continued assault on the environment, and the importance of climate change as a topic in the 2020 presidential election -- this is a spectacularly bad performance by broadcast TV news shows in covering one of the greatest crises of our times.
Moreover, coverage of both the pandemic and climate crises is not incompatible as the two are linked in various ways, which offered a number of opportunities to incorporate climate reporting into the coronavirus coverage. But by and large, broadcast TV news failed to expose the ways these issues were intertwined in 2020.
Broadcast TV news rarely discussed the links between the coronavirus pandemic and climate change
At the scientific level, a warming world due to climate change will make it easier for deadly viruses and pathogens like the coronavirus to spread, and research in the U.S. has found that areas with bad air pollution can lead to higher coronavirus death rates. Indeed, poorer and minority communities in the U.S. disproportionately bear the brunt of both the coronavirus and climate change.
The issues are also linked at a broader level, as climate journalist Emily Atkin explained in The Guardian:
“Both are global crises which threaten millions of lives with clear science on how to solve them which governments have been too slow to act on; the same people who promote climate denial are refusing to accept the science of coronavirus, too.
“I see my responsibility as documenting the short-term effects of climate change more aggressively so people understand, just like coronavirus, climate change is killing people right now,” she says.
Atkin also noted that public pressure on governments has forced quick action on coronavirus, which is exactly the response that is needed in the fight against climate change, and concluded that “it’s irresponsible not to” link the two issues.
Despite these facts, the connections between climate change and the coronavirus were mentioned only three times across broadcast TV nightly news and Sunday morning political shows coverage of climate change in 2020.
One mention came on the November 28 edition of CBS Evening News, in an exchange between CBS correspondent Debora Patta and Arctic biologist Allison Fong:
DEBORA PATTA (CORRESPONDENT): Now, back at home, Fong says the evidence she and her colleagues gathered provides devastating proof of a dying Arctic Ocean and warnings of ice-free summers due to man-made greenhouse gasses warming the planet.
ALLISON FONG (ARCTIC BIOLOGIST): As scientists, I think we need to be more outspoken about the crisis that we see in front of us, the environmental crisis, and not be shy about more facts. We know that what we have done has caused an increase in temperature and carbon dioxide on Earth, and that causes warming. And that warming is causing the melting of both the North and the South Poles, and the loss of this ice is causing major changes to the way the climate functions.
PATTA: Scientists claim that means more intense wildfires, stronger hurricanes, extreme floods, and drought around the world. The scientists braved polar bears, days of complete darkness, and isolation for months on end. And when they finished, they took samples of the ice for further study back home. But home looks very different. They left to dry land before anyone had heard of COVID, only to return to a global pandemic.
FONG: Some people think that perhaps because of this focus on the global pandemic, we also can’t address the issues of climate and global warming. But they’re not exclusive. We must take action.
PATTA: That action includes producing clean energy, recycling, repurposing, and consuming less.
FONG: The choices we need to make about how we sustain humanity must be different.
PATTA: Choices she believes that can help halt the damage to our warming world.
Another segment to mention links between the two crises came on the September 13 edition of ABC’s This Week, in an interview with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley about the western wildfires. Inslee discussed then-President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the wildfires, stating that Trump “has downplayed climate change, just like he's downplayed COVID. And for Donald Trump to say he's a hero of climate change is like saying he's a hero of masks against COVID.”
Finally, in a segment about climate change’s impact on Lake Tahoe’s water quality on the July 25 edition of CBS Evening News, the owner of a dive business was asked about what gives him hope considering the declining health of the lake, which has been impacted by climate change. He said, “If there's a silver lining of our pandemic, I think it showed there -- nature will come back and heal itself if we just relieve that pressure, that human pressure.”
The “silver lining” mentioned by the business owner refers to a widely reported aspect of the pandemic that benefited the climate -- the drastic drop in global carbon emissions due to decreased travel and economic lockdowns. However, the “silver lining” coverage often failed to emphasize that the emissions decline was temporary and would not impact efforts to decarbonize our economy in the long term. Notably, right-wing media outlets also weaponized the “silver lining” claim in 2020 to falsely suggest that climate activists actually welcomed the pandemic and the restrictions it imposed.
White men once again made up the overwhelming majority of guests in climate segments
Nightly news and Sunday morning political shows in 2020 featured 89 people in climate segments who were invited on as guests, shown speaking in video footage, or quoted, excluding the networks’ anchors, hosts, and correspondents. Once again, these guests were overwhelmingly white men.
In 2020, just 8% of guests in climate segments were people of color, marking the fourth year in a row that people of color made up just one in 10 or less of overall guests on climate segments. In 2019, people of color made up 10% of guests, and in 2018, they made up 9% of guests. This lopsided representation flatly ignores the reality that, due to historical and current injustices, climate change disproportionately affects communities of color. In fact, recent polling shows that these communities “are more concerned than Whites about climate change.”
Out of seven people of color featured as guests in climate segments in 2020, four appeared on NBC -- three on NBC Nightly News and one on Meet the Press. One also appeared on CBS Evening News, while just two appeared on ABC -- one on World News Tonight and one on This Week. There were no people of color in climate segments on Fox News Sunday in 2020.
There was also a decrease in the number of women of color who appeared as guests on broadcast TV news -- only six appeared in 2020, compared to 10 in 2019. NBC featured three, including NBC News journalist Kristen Welker in a Meet the Press panel discussion on December 27 and two residents of St. James Parish in Louisiana, an area known as Cancer Alley, who were featured in an October 18 Nightly News segment on the disproportionate exposure of Black communities to toxic pollution. ABC featured two women of color in its climate coverage -- current Vice President Kamala Harris on the October 14 edition of World News Tonight, and Philadelphia’s 6abc news anchor Tamala Edwards in a panel discussion on the October 25 edition of This Week. CBS Evening News featured just one, Arctic biologist Allison Fong, on November 28, and Fox News Sunday did not include any women of color in its three climate segments.
Only one Black man featured in corporate broadcast networks’ climate coverage in 2020; he appeared in the aforementioned NBC Nightly News segment on toxic pollution in St. James Parish.
Overall, of the 89 total guests featured in climate segments, 64 were men (72%), and 25 were women (28%). This is a minuscule improvement from 2019, when women made up 27% of overall guests, and from 2018, when women made up just 19% of overall guests.
In 2020, NBC featured the most women guests, with 10; six appeared on Nightly News and four appeared on Meet the Press. Seven women appeared on CBS; six appeared on CBS Evening News, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown appeared on the September 13 edition of Face the Nation to discuss the destructive western wildfires. ABC featured only six women as guests; four appeared on World News Tonight and two on Face the Nation. Fox News Sunday had just two women guests; Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on October 25 and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar on November 1.
Including her Face the Nation appearance, Brown appeared four times in September across ABC’s and CBS’ climate coverage to discuss the western wildfires affecting her state. Notably, Swedish climate activists Greta Thunberg appeared just once in 2020, on the January 21 edition of ABC’s World News Tonight. In 2019, she appeared nine times and was tied for the most appearances that year with former President Donald Trump.
In 2020, that designation went to President Joe Biden, who appeared in seven climate segments last year. Biden was followed by Trump, who appeared six times; California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who appeared five times; and California's Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot and Oregon Gov. Brown, who each appeared four times. Trump’s appearances in 2020 were much fewer than in previous years -- he was featured in nine segments in 2019 and 10 segments in 2018. Additionally, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who appeared in five segments in 2019, appeared only twice in 2020. Both of those segments discussed September’s western U.S. wildfires.
There was a distinct lack of scientists and activists featured in climate segments in 2020
The percentage of scientists featured as guests in climate segments fell from 22% in 2019, when 50 out of 230 guests were scientists, to just 9% in 2020 -- only 10 out of 89 guests were scientists. This sharp fall in appearances by climate scientists from 2019 is eye-opening when considering that 2020 was tied for the warmest year on record and that the Arctic region saw historic ice loss and unprecedented wildfires.
Out of 10 total scientists featured as guests on the nightly and Sunday morning news shows’ climate segments in 2020, just three were climate scientists. Two came on CBS Evening News, which included Park Williams of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory on May 16 and Geoff Schladow of the University of California, Davis, on July 25. Additionally, Daniel Swain of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability discussed climate change’s role in the California wildfires on the September 11 edition of NBC Nightly News.
For the fourth time in five years, not a single climate scientist appeared on any of the eight Sunday show climate segments in 2020.
Other notable scientists to appear in climate segments included University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch, who discussed climate change’s impact on wildfires on the September 21 edition of NBC Nightly News, and oceanographer Andrea Vander Woude of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who discussed climate change’s impact on the Great Lakes on the July 26 edition of NBC Nightly News.
In total, CBS Evening News had six scientists appear in its climate segments, NBC Nightly News had three, and ABC’s World News Tonight had just one. There were no scientists featured on Fox News Sunday.
Thanks in part to the tireless work of climate activists over the past year, climate change was a huge plank of the Democratic Party platform in 2020 -- but broadcast TV networks largely failed to cover their importance with the necessity and respect that it deserves. Notably, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg was the only climate activist to be featured in a climate segment in 2020; this came in a segment about the Davos World Economic Forum on the January 21 edition of ABC’s World News Tonight. (In 2019, climate activism was a big driver of broadcast TV coverage of climate change; 16% of overall climate segments were about climate activism, and many featured Thunberg.)
By far the most represented group of guests featured in climate segments in 2020 were current politicians. Thirty-four current politicians appeared across climate segments on the nightly news and Sunday morning political shows. Of these politicians, 26 were classified as “left-leaning,” while 8 were classified as “right-leaning.” CBS shows had 14 politicians featured as guests, ABC had 12, NBC had 6, and Fox News Sunday had 2.
While September was a big month for climate coverage, major climate events in 2020 went virtually unnoticed by nightly news and Sunday shows
In 2020, 39% of all climate coverage minutes on the nightly news and Sunday shows -- 44 out of 112 total minutes -- came during the month of September. These included 19 segments on nightly news shows, and three segments on Sunday morning shows. The 22 segments in September represented 35% of all climate segments in 2020.
Nearly all of the climate coverage in September was driven by wildfires that raged across the western U.S. The only other major climate story touched on that month was Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement that California is intending to phase out gas-powered cars by 2035. This was mentioned along with the destructive western wildfires on the September 23 edition of ABC’s World News Tonight.
The uptick of climate coverage in September also occurred in 2019, when 29 climate segments were aired across nightly news and Sunday morning shows, making it the best-performing month for climate coverage since Media Matters began this study in 2009. Most of the September 2019 segments touched upon the Covering Climate Now initiative and the massive youth climate strike on September 20.
With so much attention in 2020 focused during one month (and one specific event, the western U.S. wildfires), climate coverage fell elsewhere across the year. There was not a single climate segment on any nightly news or Sunday show aired in the months of March, April, or June despite the occurrence of major climate-related stories -- for example, the Trump administration's continuation of its harmful deregulatory agenda. In March, under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump relaxed environmental safeguards, essentially giving companies a free pass to pollute, and finalized its rule to roll back Obama-era vehicle emissions standards. Also in March, the World Meteorological Organization released its State of the Climate report, which found that growing world hunger, vulnerability in food supplies, and increasing extreme weather are all worsening due to climate change.
Key climate stories were also missed in the next month. April 22, 2020, marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day -- and while each nightly news show ran brief segments on Earth Day, none of them mentioned climate change. That same month, the International Energy Agency found that the coronavirus pandemic led to a huge decline in carbon emissions and recommended that clean energy investments should be centered in recovery efforts to sustain emissions reductions post-pandemic. There were also reports released on dangerous ecosystem collapse, huge Arctic ice loss, and super-polluting methane leaks in the Permian Basin of the southwest U.S. But all of these climate stories went unnoticed by nightly news and the Sunday shows.
In June, there was a record-breaking Siberian heat wave, a record-high carbon dioxide concentration in the air, and news of more Trump administration environmental rollbacks. However, these stories were absent from climate coverage on corporate broadcast outlets’ nightly news and Sunday political shows.
In the four-month period between May and August, corporate broadcast TV shows aired only five climate segments -- all on the nightly news shows. Two covered the August 2020 California wildfires, two covered climate change’s impacts on water quality in Lake Tahoe and the Great Lakes, and one covered the western U.S. megadrought. Examples of key climate stories that were missed during these months included a May study finding that billions will be subjected to unlivable heat by 2070; news that May 2020 was the hottest month on record; July news that methane in the atmosphere rose to its highest level on record; and news that the year’s forecasted Atlantic hurricane season was already breaking records.
Australian and western U.S. wildfires drove the vast majority of extreme weather and climate coverage, followed by the 2020 presidential election
According to NOAA, “2020 was a historic year of extremes,” with 22 separate extreme weather events in the U.S. costing nearly $100 billion in damages. Thirty named storms also made 2020 a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season. Out west, wildfires burned over 5 million acres in California, Oregon, and Washington, with climate scientist Daniel Swain telling The New York Times, “We’ve broken almost every record there is to break.” Many of these events were related to the dangerous and record-breaking heat wave that blanketed most of the U.S. during the summer of 2020.
Extreme weather affected much of the globe. Australian wildfires from late 2019 into 2020 were the country’s most expensive on record, burning over 46 million acres. Reviewing the fires later in 2020, an Australian governmental commission noted that “more dangerous weather conditions for bushfires are very likely to occur throughout Australia in the future due to a warming climate.” Siberia also saw exceptional heat, and research from the World Weather Attribution project found that the “Siberian heat wave and record heat in the Arctic would be virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.” Additionally, climate change influenced a deadly monsoon flooding season in India as well.
All of these events happened as 2020 tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record in human history. Notably, not a single nightly news segment mentioned the economic damages wrought by these events as part of the cost of climate inaction.
Broadcast TV nightly news and Sunday morning shows aired a combined 31 segments that mentioned climate change when reporting on extreme weather in 2020. Twenty-eight of these -- 90% -- came during coverage of either Australian or U.S. wildfires, with the overwhelming majority of climate mentions -- 24 segments -- reporting on the devastating wildfires in California and other parts of the western U.S. Climate change’s impact on other events, like heat waves, droughts, and hurricanes, was barely mentioned in extreme weather reporting.
Nightly news shows connected the Australia wildfires to climate change in four segments. ABC’s World News Tonight ran two segments, while NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News ran one each. The quality of this climate coverage was generally shallow -- three out of the four segments had climate change as a secondary focus in discussing the wildfires. Additionally, there were no climate scientists interviewed or featured in these segments. The January 15 edition of ABC’s World News Tonight was unique in that it also mentioned 2019 being the second hottest year ever and that heat levels are very high in the ocean, in addition to covering the Australian wildfires.
Climate change was mentioned 24 times in reporting on the western U.S. wildfires in the latter half of 2020. CBS mentioned climate change 10 times, followed by ABC with 8 mentions and NBC with 5. Fox News Sunday did 1 segment on the western wildfires. The bulk of these mentions -- 21 out of the 24 -- came in a seven-day period from September 8-14.
Only two scientists were featured in these western wildfire segments; both appeared on NBC Nightly News. On the September 11 edition of NBC Nightly News, climate scientist Daniel Swain of UCLA stated, “The climate is warmer and more conducive to extreme fire behavior than it once was.” On the September 21 edition, fire scientist Jennifer Balch of the University of Colorado said, “We have essentially built a nightmare into flammable landscapes, made even worse by climate change.”
Notably, the apocalyptic wildfires prompted three out of the four major Sunday shows (with the exception of Fox News Sunday) to include substantive mentions of climate change during their September 13 episodes. Even these instances revealed that the climate discussion around the wildfires was driven by the guests, who were responding to the hosts’ narrow, sometimes conservatively framed questions or misinformation around forest management that Trump threw out to chum the waters of climate denial.
In fact, seven of the 24 western U.S. wildfire segments in 2020 revolved around Trump’s meeting with California state officials on September 14 in which he downplayed climate change’s link to the fires. In reality, experts have heavily refuted Trump’s baseless claim that the science on climate change is unsettled and his exclusive focus on forest management.
Four of these segments included pushback to Trump’s claim that “I don’t think science knows, actually” -- once each on the ABC, CBS, and NBC nightly news shows and once on the September 13 edition of ABC's This Week. In the latter episode, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee refuted Trump’s forest management claims.
The remaining three segments did not include any pushback at all to Trump’s climate denial. Two of these failures came on ABC’s World News Tonight and one came on CBS Evening News.
Other extreme weather events
Climate change was mentioned four times in reporting on drought, hurricanes, heat waves, and general extreme weather in 2020. All of these mentions came on CBS Evening News. On May 16, climate change was mentioned in a segment on a western U.S. megadrought, which scientists say has been the worst in nearly 1,200 years. On September 6, meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Beradelli linked the western U.S. heat wave to climate change, stating, “Climate change took a run-of-the-mill heat wave and it made it into a remarkable heat wave.” On November 15, anchor Jamie Yuccas mentioned climate change in an overview of the record-breaking 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, noting, “Scientists say the record number of storms this season is connected to the climate crisis.” Finally, in a November 28 interview with Arctic biologist Allison Fong, climate change was linked to worsening extreme weather events around the globe.
Broadcast TV nightly news and Sunday shows have generally been awful at connecting climate change to hurricanes and heat waves. 2020 proved no different.
Other climate impacts
After the effect of climate change on supercharging extreme weather events, the second most discussed climate impact in 2020 was its effects on plants and wildlife, including marine and aquatic life. CBS Evening News aired seven such segments, covering climate change’s impact on sea lions and Antarctic penguins and the California wildfires’ impacts on plants and wildlife. ABC’s World News Tonight aired two such segments -- one discussing a University of Arizona report on the potential extinction of numerous plant and animal species, and another on the 2020 State of the World's Plants and Fungi report -- while NBC Nightly News aired just one, a July segment on climate change’s effects on aquatic life in the Great Lakes.
2020 election-related coverage
Broadcast TV nightly news and Sunday shows aired 16 climate segments on the 2020 election. Eight of these segments mentioned Biden’s climate plan, which aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in the U.S. by 2050, while the other eight mentioned climate change’s role in the election in a general sense. Seven of the eight segments mentioning Biden’s climate plan came on Sunday morning political shows.
NBC shows aired seven segments on climate and the 2020 election -- six on Nightly News and one on Meet the Press. CBS aired four -- three on CBS Evening News and one on Face the Nation. ABC aired three, all on This Week, and Fox News Sunday aired two. Several of these segments were about post-election news, including Biden’s plan to nominate John Kerry as the special presidential envoy for climate.
Climate solutions coverage also fell from 2019
Out of 63 climate segments that aired on nightly news and Sunday morning shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox in 2020, only 18 of them (29%) mentioned potential solutions or actions related to addressing climate change. While this is lower than 2019, when climate solutions were mentioned in 37% of such segments, it is higher than in 2018, when solutions were included in only 20% of climate segments.
Then-candidate Biden’s climate plan and the clean energy technologies it relies on were the most common solutions discussed in these segments. NBC mentioned climate solutions in six segments -- three each on Nightly News and Meet the Press. All three mentions on Meet the Press focused on Biden’s proposed plan to tackle the climate crisis through government action if he was elected president.
ABC mentioned climate solutions in five segments -- two on World News Tonight and three on This Week. Some of these solutions included the Bezos Earth Fund (Jeff Bezos’ personal fund of $10 billion to fight climate change), job creation prospects in addressing climate change, and ramping up investment in clean energy.
Three of CBS’ solutions mentions came on CBS Evening News, and one came on Face the Nation. These actions touched on Biden’s climate plan, other governmental action to address climate change, and individual actions such as recycling and consuming less.
Finally, Fox News Sunday mentioned climate solutions in all three of its climate segments. In a February 23 interview, former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer mentioned the urgent need to invest in clean energy, and on October 25, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer mentioned the need to end oil industry subsidies, which are both tenets of Biden’s plan. Finally, in a November 1 interview, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) mentioned stopping oil subsidies and transitioning to renewables in order to fight worsening climate-fueled extreme weather events.
Media coverage of climate solutions is important in getting the public to shake off the doom and gloom of climate change and take action in addressing it. As former New York Times climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis noted in a discussion about her new climate solutions podcast, How to Save a Planet:
For the past 10 or 15 years, there has been a form of climate journalism that focuses on the problem to such a degree that it can be disempowering. People can feel like the scale of the problem is so large and there aren't any solutions.
So we're trying to get people to understand that they can be part of the solution. They can plug into aspects of our society to move the needle on climate change.
In that endeavor to inform the public on climate solutions and on the economic and societal benefits of getting our response to the climate crisis right, corporate broadcast TV news still has far to go.
PBS NewsHour once again did the best job of covering climate change, although the volume of its coverage dropped precipitously from 2019 to 2020
In addition to analyzing climate change coverage on the nightly news and Sunday morning shows, we also examined coverage on public broadcaster PBS' weekday nightly news show, PBS NewsHour.
For years, PBS NewsHour has far outpaced its corporate counterparts’ nightly shows when it comes to covering climate change. This trend continued in 2020, as PBS NewsHour aired a total of 58 climate segments -- more than the combined amount of segments aired on the nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC. However, similar to the overall trend of climate coverage in 2020, PBS NewsHour's coverage of climate change fell markedly from 2019 to 2020 -- a decline of 52% -- including the program’s lowest number of climate segments since 2016, when it aired only 46.
While PBS NewsHour’s climate coverage was better than its corporate network counterparts’ in almost every facet, its coverage was similarly dominated by mostly white men. PBS featured 92 guests in its 2020 climate coverage; 60 of them -- 65% -- were men, and 32 of them (35%) were women. And similar to its corporate network counterparts, PBS NewsHour was lacking people of color among its guests. Eighty-one of its guests were white and only 11 were people of color -- 12%. It is worth noting, however, that some of PBS NewsHour’s leading correspondents in climate segments, including Yamiche Alcindor, Amna Nawaz, and John Yang, are people of color.
Twelve of NewsHour’s guests in climate segments in 2020 were scientists, including five climate scientists. Ten were members of the media, including several climate and energy reporters like Axios’ Amy Harder, The New York Times’ Coral Davenport, and The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin.
PBS NewsHour’s climate coverage in 2020 was comprehensive. The program aired 23 segments on either the Trump administration’s statements and actions on climate change or proposed Biden administrative actions; 17 segments on extreme weather; and 7 segments on the Green New Deal. PBS NewsHour also mentioned climate solutions in 34 segments -- more than four times the number aired by its nightly news counterparts on corporate broadcast networks combined -- discussing proposals that varied from awareness-raising campaigns to ending oil subsidies to sustainable agriculture and investing.
NewsHour covered climate issues that went unnoticed or under-covered on corporate broadcast TV nightly news shows as well. For example, there were segments about the Trump administration's rollbacks on methane pollution, logging in Tongass National Forest, environmental impacts on tribal land, and vehicle emissions rollbacks. NewsHour segments also mentioned climate impacts on coral reefs, insects, and melting permafrost. Notably, it was the only broadcast news program in 2020 to do a segment on the summer’s devastating Arctic heat wave. The program also did two segments on the landmark European Union climate law that was proposed last year, which aims to make Europe have net zero emissions by 2050.
For the first time ever, morning news shows were included in this study. They heavily outperformed their nightly news counterparts
For the first time in this annual study that dates back to 2009, we analyzed climate coverage on the major morning news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC.
In terms of both overall volume and quality, climate coverage on the morning news shows was vastly superior to the climate coverage on its nightly news counterparts. (NBC’s Today has 17.5 hours of programming per week, ABC's Good Morning America has 13 hours of programming per week, and CBS This Morning has 12 hours of programming per week.)
In 2020, broadcast morning news shows collectively aired 267 minutes of climate change coverage across approximately 158 segments. NBC’s Today was the best-performing network in both minutes and segments; the program aired just over two hours of climate coverage (121 minutes) across 75 climate segments. The third hour of its weekday program represented 21 climate segments and 43 minutes of coverage; even without the weekday third hour, Today would still rank first in climate segments aired and second in total minutes of climate coverage among corporate broadcast outlets.
CBS This Morning aired nearly an hour and a half of climate coverage (89 total minutes) across 51 segments. ABC’s Good Morning America aired 58 minutes of coverage across 32 segments. Similar to its nightly news network counterpart, World News Tonight, Good Morning America was the worst-performing program in covering climate change.
Notable segments on NBC’s Today that mentioned climate change in 2020 included interviews with climate activists Jane Fonda, Jane Goodall, and Al Gore. Additionally, Today was the only morning show to mention climate change in relation to Hurricane Cristobal; it was also the only morning show to cover both the State of the Climate and the World Meteorological Organization reports.
CBS This Morning included notable segments on the Bezos Earth Fund and Prince William’s Countdown Initiative; climate change’s impact on Antarctic animals and mountain gorillas; and climate change’s impact on Maine.
Notable climate segments on Good Morning America included explanations of how climate-influenced drought, abnormal weather, and heat were affecting the Victoria Falls in Africa; how climate change affected Nicaraguan coffee production; and how climate change impacted extreme weather disasters overall in 2020.
Although the morning news shows outperformed the nightly news programs, their guest lists were quite similar -- white men also made up the majority of those interviewed or featured in morning show climate segments in 2020.
Out of a total of 145 guests on the morning news program’s climate segments, 74% were men (107), while only 26% were women (38). Additionally, 135 guests were white -- 93% -- while only 10 were people of color (7%).
Notable guests included 29 scientists, 15 of whom were climate specialists. Morning shows had those climate scientists on to discuss a wide range of climate topics, including the wildfires in Australia and the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on climate change and air pollution, and other segments about ocean warming, extreme heat, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accords and what it would mean, and the record-breaking 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.
Some climate scientists appeared on morning shows more than once; these included Radley Horton of Columbia University's Earth Institute, Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, Kristopher Karnauskas of the University of Colorado, and Daniel Swain of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Scientists appearing on the morning news programs’ climate coverage made up 20% of overall guests -- a marked improvement from making up just 9% of guests on the nightly news and Sunday shows.
Additionally, morning news programs featured 43 current politicians as guests in climate coverage in 2020. Of those appearances, 32 politicians were classified as “left-leaning” while 11 were classified as “right-leaning.” California Gov. Gavin Newsom was the most featured politician -- he appeared 14 times across morning news programs’ climate coverage in 2020, while Donald Trump appeared nine times, and Joe Biden appeared six times.
Morning news programs did slightly better than their evening and Sunday show counterparts when linking climate change to the coronavirus pandemic, collectively airing 10 segments linking the two crises directly. However, this still represented only 6% of overall morning climate coverage. NBC’s Today aired eight such segments, while CBS This Morning aired two. ABC’s Good Morning America did not air a single climate segment that linked the crisis to coronavirus.
Four of those segments linking the coronavirus to the climate crisis came in April, three of which aired on Earth Day -- and as Media Matters noted earlier in 2020, this coverage was generally shallow and susceptible to attacks by right-wing media and climate deniers. In addition to one such Earth Day segment, CBS This Morning’s other link between coronavirus and climate change came during a segment on African mountain gorillas on May 2. Today aired four coronavirus and climate segments in September, and two were particularly good: One included an interview with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on September 8, where he addressed the dual challenges of the coronavirus and climate change, and another on September 21 that was a part of Today’s “Our Special Planet” series in which weather anchor Al Roker noted that while the world grapples with the coronavirus, climate change is still an “emergency [that] is showing no signs of slowing down.”
In general, the longer format of the morning shows allowed for longer and more in-depth discussions of climate change. For example, ABC’s Good Morning America aired two different climate segments that were over six minutes long in 2020 as part of its “Extraordinary Earth” series, which documented different environmental issues facing humans and animals in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. CBS This Morning aired two nearly five-minute-long segments that mentioned climate change’s impacts on California’s sequoia trees and flooding in Venice, Italy. NBC's Today devoted nearly five minutes to a climate change-focused interview with Guterres.
Like their evening news counterparts, morning shows in 2020 noted climate’s impact on extreme weather events, particularly the Australian and western U.S. wildfires, making up nearly half of their climate coverage. ABC aired 15, CBS had 24, and NBC ran 37 segments on extreme weather and climate in 2020, accounting for 47%, 47%, and 49% of their overall climate coverage, respectively.
Another key data point for morning shows’ climate coverage in 2020 is the amount of broadcast meteorologists who were featured talking about climate change: Weather reports made up 29% of all climate coverage on the morning news shows. This was less the case on Good Morning America, with only four of its weather reports mentioning climate, or 13%; on Today and CBS This Morning, weather reports made up 40% and 24% of climate segments, respectively.
Meteorologists Jeff Berardelli of CBS and Al Roker of NBC deserve particular praise for incorporating climate change into their weather reports. Particular climate issues woven into morning shows’ weather reports in 2020 included flooding in Michigan; Hurricanes Sally, Delta, and Zeta; the fact that January and May 2020 were the hottest records of those months in history; and links between snowstorms and climate change.
In Grist, Maddie Stone wrote about the importance of getting meteorologist to incorporate climate change into weather forecasts:
For many years, as the science of human-caused climate change grew ever clearer, TV meteorologists avoided discussing the topic on air. Today, many weathercasters bring up climate change regularly. By embracing the science and presenting it in a simple, locally-relevant manner, TV meteorologists have managed to become some of the most effective and trustworthy climate change educators in the country.
While wading into politics on the air can carry career risks for many meteorologists, weathercasters are also uniquely positioned to educate the public about climate solutions in a nonpartisan way, whether that’s by delivering locally tailored forecasts of renewable power production or discussing climate resilience strategies in the wake of a major storm.
Indeed, as NBC weather anchor Al Roker said on Earth Day 2020, “Now more than ever it is important to cover one of the most pressing issues in our lifetimes. ... Climate issues are real, and what we will provide are real facts from real scientists so people can make choices and decisions for themselves."
Unfortunately, the significant drop in coverage on broadcast TV news shows from 2019 to 2020 was a major step backward. The climate crisis is only getting worse, and the solutions to help address it are right in front of us. Let’s hope broadcast TV news does a much, much better job in 2021 putting climate coverage front and center.
Charts by John Whitehouse of Media Matters.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Nexis database for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ This Morning, Evening News, and Face the Nation; NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press; Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday; and PBS’ NewsHour for any of the terms and any derivations of the terms “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,” “green new deal,” “climate conference,” “climate plan,” “COP 26,” “carbon emissions,” “greenhouse gases,” or “net zero” from January 1 through December 31, 2020.
We included any segment when climate change was the stated topic of discussion as well as any segment that included a substantial mention of climate change, which we defined as a paragraph or more of a news transcript or a block of uninterrupted speech by a host, anchor, or correspondent. We did not include instances when guests mentioned climate change in passing without either a host, anchor, or correspondent first prompting or another speaker subsequently engaging with the comment.
When counting guests, we included network employees, including paid contributors and analysts, 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. This review does not include “person on the street” interviews, in which an unnamed person in a transcript spoke briefly, as guests; however, in the previous iterations of this study, we included “person on the street” interviewees as guests.
We timed identified segments using the video database Kinetiq. We only timed the relevant portions of multi-topic segments that addressed climate change.
We rounded all times to the nearest minute and all percentages to the nearest whole. To determine the total program time, we averaged running time without commercials for a sample of each program.