How broadcast TV networks covered climate change in 2021
2021 was a stand-out year for climate coverage on corporate broadcast TV networks. In our annual analysis of climate coverage, Media Matters found that approximately 1,316 minutes — nearly 22 hours — were spent discussing climate change on morning, evening, and Sunday morning news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting Co., more than a threefold increase from 2020. However, all those hours of climate coverage on corporate broadcast TV networks represented roughly 1% of overall news programming in 2021, a figure that is still far too small in the face of a worsening climate crisis.
The increase in coverage was largely driven by various Biden administration climate initiatives; another year of deadly climate-fueled extreme weather events across the globe; and the pivotal 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), which was held in Glasgow, Scotland, over a two-week period in November. This rise in the quantity of coverage — after years of advocacy by climate journalists, activists and researchers pushing for more and better climate coverage by TV news — was supported by new and renewed commitments from corporate broadcast networks to cover climate through collaborative initiatives like Covering Climate Now and dedicated reporting during key climate events.
However, some problematic trends continued to materialize in the quality of corporate broadcast news coverage of climate change, including, for at least the fifth year in a row, an overwhelming proportion of white men featured as guests in climate coverage, even though people of color are most impacted by the crisis. And while broadcast networks did a decent job of covering key moments and events in 2021 overall, their climate coverage throughout the year was uneven.
Top trends from broadcast TV news climate coverage in 2021
- Total broadcast news climate coverage in 2021 tripled from 2020: Morning news shows, evening news shows, and Sunday morning shows on corporate broadcast TV networks aired nearly 22 hours of combined climate coverage in 2021 — a total of 1,316 minutes across 604 segments. This is more than triple the amount of climate coverage in 2020, when these networks aired just 380 minutes across 221 segments.
- Every network significantly increased its 2021 climate coverage from 2020: CBS led, with the most total coverage across its morning news, evening news, and Sunday political shows, airing a combined 569 minutes (nearly nine and a half hours) across 220 segments in 2021, compared to just 125 minutes and 73 segments in 2020. NBC aired 383 minutes (nearly six and a half hours) of climate coverage across 196 segments in 2021, compared to just 159 minutes and 94 segments the previous year. ABC aired 323 minutes (nearly five and a half hours) of climate coverage across 175 segments in 2021, compared to 90 minutes and 50 segments the year before.
- Nightly news had its highest volume of climate coverage since Media Matters began tracking this information in 2011: Nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired nearly six hours of climate coverage (344 minutes) across 181 segments in 2021, which is more airtime than in the previous three years combined.
- PBS NewsHour’s climate coverage increased 160% from 2020 to 2021. The program aired 151 climate segments in 2021 — compared to 60 segments in 2020 — which represents nearly as many as the corporate networks' combined coverage. PBS NewsHour, however, is not included in the full dataset as it is publicly funded and the format of the program is different than that of its corporate counterparts.
- Morning news shows tripled the amount of time spent on climate change from 2020: For the second year in a row, Media Matters analyzed the morning news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, which aired nearly 14 hours of climate coverage (821 minutes) across 363 segments in 2021. This is over double the number of segments that they ran in 2020 (158), and nearly triple the amount of total climate coverage (267 minutes).
- Sunday political shows aired three times more climate segments in 2021 than the previous three years combined: There were 60 combined Sunday morning show climate segments across ABC, CBS, Fox Broadcasting Co., and NBC in 2021. This is over four times the amount of segments aired in 2020 (14) and is nearly triple the amount of combined segments that ran from 2018 to 2020.
- A summer of global extreme weather, President Joe Biden’s climate agenda, and the COP26 climate conference were major drivers of climate coverage in 2021:
- Thirty-three percent of nightly news segments — 60 out of 181 — included discussion of summer extreme weather events. In addition, 13% of segments (24) discussed COP26, while 9% of segments (16) included discussion of the climate components of Biden’s “Build Back Better” infrastructure plan.
- Twenty-three percent of morning news segments — 84 out of 363 — included discussion of summer extreme weather events. COP26 was discussed in 11% of segments (39), while the climate components of Biden’s infrastructure plan were discussed in 7% of segments (24).
- Despite the increase in coverage from 2020, networks failed to cover climate change consistently throughout the year — 66% of climate segments aired in the last six months of 2021, with 42% of all climate segments on broadcast news in 2021 airing in the months of September, October, and November.
- For at least the fifth year in a row, white men dominated guests featured in climate segments. A whopping 59% of guests on morning news, evening news, and Sunday morning shows — 314 out of 534 guests — were white men. Only 7% of guests – 40 total – were women of color.
- 2021’s increase in appearances by those most impacted by climate change, who accounted for 20% of guests across morning news, evening news, and Sunday morning shows, suggests that broadcast TV news is beginning to cover the climate crisis as a current rather than a future event.
The overall volume of climate coverage on broadcast TV tripled from 2020 to 2021
Combined climate change coverage on corporate broadcast morning news, evening news, and Sunday morning shows saw a threefold increase from 2020 to 2021, going from nearly six and a half hours (380 minutes) to almost 22 hours (1,316 minutes). This constitutes a major expansion in climate coverage across all networks and programs from the previous year.
In fact, CBS aired more minutes of climate coverage in 2021 than all of broadcast news aired in 2020 combined. The network accounted for 43% of all climate coverage across corporate broadcast news, airing nine and a half hours (569 minutes) across its morning, nightly, and Sunday morning news shows in 2021.
NBC aired slightly more coverage — nearly six and a half hours (383 minutes) — than the combined amount of coverage in 2020. Finally, ABC aired nearly five and a half hours (323 minutes) of climate coverage in 2021.
New and renewed commitments by networks to cover climate through collaborative initiatives and dedicated reporting contributed to the increase in climate coverage this past year. In 2019 and 2020, CBS and NBC, respectively, joined the Covering Climate Now initiative that aims to help newsrooms produce better climate coverage. At the end of October 2021, ABC signed onto the partnership as well, rounding out corporate broadcast TV’s public-facing commitment to expand coverage of climate change.
Additionally, all three major networks produced strong, sustained Earth Day coverage that tackled climate change and other environmental issues. ABC partnered with Hulu to make a documentary on climate change and potential solutions; NBC spent the entire week airing climate-related segments under the “Climate Challenge'' moniker; and CBS Mornings (formerly CBS This Morning) devoted its entire 8 a.m. hour on Earth Day to climate and environmental-related coverage. These networks also all had dedicated periods of climate programming to coincide with the international climate negotiations (COP26) in early November.
Despite the high volume of climate coverage and commitment by corporate broadcast TV news shows in 2021 — the most since Media Matters began tracking this information in 2011 — their nearly 22 hours of total climate coverage accounted for just barely over 1% of the approximately 107,000 minutes of overall broadcast news programming in 2021.
Nightly news shows aired nearly six hours of climate coverage in 2021 – more than the last three years combined
ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News aired nearly six hours (344 minutes) of climate coverage combined in 2021, which is more than the total amount of nightly broadcast news climate coverage aired over the past three years.
It is also more than double the second-highest year of coverage (2017), when nightly news aired nearly three hours (164 minutes) of climate coverage. This makes 2021 the highest volume of nightly news climate coverage on corporate broadcast TV networks since Media Matters began analyzing this information in 2011.
For the fifth year in a row, CBS Evening News led the nightly news programs in climate coverage in 2021, airing over two hours (139 minutes) — a 379% increase from 2020, when the program aired just 29 minutes of climate coverage. NBC Nightly News aired nearly two hours (113 minutes) of climate coverage in 2021, a 304% increase from 2020 when the program aired just 28 minutes. Notably, while climate coverage from ABC’s flagship nightly news program World News Tonight has historically lagged behind its counterparts on CBS and NBC, the program’s 2021 coverage was by far the most improved. World News Tonight’s climate coverage increased by 667%, from just 12 minutes in 2020 to 92 minutes in 2021 — more than in the previous four years combined.
These three programs aired a combined 181 segments discussing climate change in 2021 — a 269% increase from 2020, when they aired just 49 combined climate segments. In fact, the 181 combined nightly news segments in 2021 are also more than the total number of nightly news segments that aired in 2019 and 2020 combined.
CBS Evening News led the way with 65 segments, followed by NBC Nightly News with 59 segments, and ABC’s World News Tonight with 57 segments.
Weeknight episodes of PBS NewsHour were also 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. PBS NewsHour has traditionally outperformed its corporate broadcast counterparts in both the quantity and quality of its climate change coverage, and 2021 was no different.
PBS NewsHour aired a record 151 climate segments in 2021, which is a huge increase from 2020, when the program aired just 60 climate segments. Its next best-performing year in quantity of climate segments aired was 2019, when it aired 121 segments. Like its corporate broadcast counterparts, PBS NewsHour ran most of its climate segments toward the end of the year, airing 68 such segments from September to December, accounting for 45% of its overall climate coverage. And again similar to its corporate broadcast counterparts, PBS NewHour’s climate coverage dropped off significantly after November, going from 22 segments to just four aired in December.
Morning news shows tripled the amount of time spent on climate change from 2020 to 2021
Morning news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 821 minutes of climate coverage across 363 segments in 2021. That is nearly 14 hours of coverage — more than triple the amount compared to 2020, when these networks aired a combined 267 minutes of climate coverage. It is also over double the number of climate segments from 2020, when they aired 158.
CBS Mornings led the way with 387 minutes of coverage across 137 segments — over six hours of climate coverage, which is nearly equal to the combined total from its counterparts at ABC and NBC. In 2020, by comparison, CBS Mornings aired just 89 minutes of climate coverage across 51 segments, making it the broadcast morning news program that most improved its climate coverage (335%) in 2021.
NBC’s Today aired nearly four hours (239 minutes) of coverage across 120 segments last year, nearly doubling its total compared to 2020, when it was the best-performing program in terms of quantity of climate coverage, airing just over two hours (121 minutes) across 75 segments.
ABC’s Good Morning America aired just over three hours (195 minutes) of climate coverage in 2021 across 106 segments. In 2020, the program aired just 58 minutes of climate coverage in 32 segments.
CBS Mornings’ 387 minutes of coverage represents 29% of overall broadcast TV climate coverage in 2021. It is also more than the combined climate coverage aired by all three broadcast TV networks total in 2020 (380 minutes). It is worth noting that CBS Mornings devoted nearly its entire second hour of programming on Earth Day 2021 to climate-related coverage. The show also aired a lot more coverage than its counterparts in months when networks were not responding to major climate events. For example, in May, CBS Mornings aired 29 minutes of climate coverage while Today and Good Morning America aired a combined 15 minutes. In July, CBS again aired 29 minutes of climate coverage, while ABC and NBC aired a combined nine minutes.
Climate coverage from ABC’s Good Morning America peaked in November, with 84 minutes. This is more coverage than it aired in all the months of 2020 combined (58 minutes). The quantity of NBC’s 2021 coverage peaked in September, when Today aired 45 minutes on climate change. (It’s worth noting that Today runs for three hours on weekdays, while CBS Mornings and Good Morning America each run for only two.)
Meteorologists are driving broadcast morning news climate coverage
Over the past several years, TV meteorologists have become a driving force for broadcast news climate coverage, both using their weather forecasts to connect climate change to extreme weather events and reporting on the myriad ways climate-fueled weather is impacting everyday life. This pattern continued in 2021, when meteorologists were featured in approximately 37% of morning news shows’ segments on climate change — 133 out of 363 total segments. Of these, 81 were weather reports, representing 22% of overall climate segments. Meteorologists were also featured in more traditional network reports about climate change, appearing as the lead correspondent in 41 climate segments, representing 11% of overall morning show climate segments. The other 11 segments included either meteorologists participating in interviews with guests, or meteorologists discussing climate issues with program hosts live in-studio.
NBC’s Al Roker and to a lesser extent, Dylan Dreyer and Bill Karins, were involved in nearly half (46%) of Today’s climate segments — 55 out of 120 total — including 36 weather reports representing 30% of its overall climate segments. ABC’s Ginger Zee and Rob Marciano were also involved in nearly half of ABC’s climate segments — 49 out of 106 (46%). Good Morning America ran 25 weather reports as climate segments, which represented 23% of their overall climate coverage. CBS’ Jeff Berardelli and to a lesser extent, Evelyn Taft, were involved in 29 of CBS’ 137 overall climate segments (21%). Twenty of CBS Mornings’ climate segments were weather reports, representing 15% of its overall coverage.
Sunday shows aired almost double the number of climate segments in 2021 over the previous two years combined
The four major Sunday morning political programs on corporate broadcast networks — ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday, and NBC’s Meet the Press — aired a combined two and a half hours (151 minutes) of climate coverage across 60 segments in 2021. This is more time and nearly double the number of segments than in the previous two years combined (129 minutes across 37 segments), and it represents the highest quantity of climate coverage aired by Sunday shows since Media Matters first began analyzing this information in 2011.
CBS’ Face the Nation aired the most climate coverage among Sunday shows in 2021 — 43 minutes across 18 segments. This represents a 438% increase from 2020, when it aired just eight minutes in two segments. Fox News Sunday aired 40 minutes of climate coverage across 17 segments in 2021 — a nearly sevenfold increase from 2020, when it aired just six minutes across four segments. ABC’s This Week aired 36 minutes of climate coverage across 12 segments last year, while NBC’s Meet the Press aired 31 minutes across 13 segments — increases from their 2020 coverage of 80% and 210%, respectively.
Fox News Sunday aired the two longest climate segments on broadcast TV’s Sunday political shows in 2021. On February 21, the program spent 10 minutes with billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates talking about climate change’s impact on the Texas polar vortex. On September 5, the program spent nearly eight minutes discussing climate and Hurricane Ida with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell.
Despite the increase of climate coverage on Sunday shows in 2021, Meet the Press’ 54 minutes of climate coverage in 2018 remains the most amount of coverage by a single Sunday show program in Media Matters’ yearly analysis. This is essentially due to one 46-minute episode Meet the Press aired on December 30, 2018, which was entirely focused on climate change.
Climate coverage spiked in November and was inconsistent throughout the year
One hundred climate segments aired during the month of November across morning and evening news and Sunday morning political shows on the corporate broadcast TV networks in 2021, marking the most climate coverage of any single month last year. Much of this coverage was driven by the United Nations’ annual climate conference (COP26) during the first two weeks of November.
The second-highest and third-highest volume months were September, when 80 climate segments aired, followed by October, when 74 climate segments aired on corporate broadcast TV news. In total, 42% of all climate segments aired between September and November, and 66% of all climate segments aired in the last six months of 2021.
Of November’s 100 climate segments, 39 came across both nightly news and Sunday morning political shows, making it the highest volume of climate segments in one month since Media Matters began tracking such coverage. The second highest was October 2021, when 36 of the month’s 74 climate segments (49%) aired across evening news and Sunday morning political shows focused primarily on various climate impacts (including a bomb cyclone in the Pacific Northwest as well as the first Nor’easter of the season) or President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. After this, the next best-performing month for climate coverage on evening news shows and Sunday morning programs was September 2019, which saw 29 segments primarily focused on various forms of climate activism.
Sixty-one of the climate segments that aired in November appeared on morning news shows, the most climate segments on such programs in the two years that Media Matters has been analyzing morning news show climate coverage. The next best month was September, which had 55 morning climate segments, and April, which had 44. Fifty of the climate segments on morning news shows in November were aired during the COP26 conference in Scotland, including 15 segments aired on November 1 alone, which was the second day of the global climate conference. Notably, Good Morning America aired nine of these 15 segments, showcasing its new commitment to covering climate change.
Two of the major stories driving climate coverage this year — global extreme weather and COP26 — match up with the months when climate coverage peaked; 42% of total climate coverage occurred from September through November. Meanwhile, the first three months of the year had a combined 62 climate segments — just 10% of the year’s total. These irregularities in coverage have occurred in previous years as well. In 2020, one-third of climate segments on evening and Sunday morning news shows came in September alone, while three months of the year didn’t have any climate segments on such programs at all. And in 2019, nearly 40% of climate segments on these programs came in August and September.
Broadcast TV news shows shouldn’t just check boxes to cover climate change during the peak of extreme weather season or major climate events. Climate change affects people everywhere and every day, and these stories can and should be covered year-round.
White men once again made up the overwhelming majority of guests in climate segments across morning news, nightly news, and Sunday political shows in 2021
The predominance of both white and male guests marks a dispiriting trend in climate coverage across all networks and programs on corporate broadcast TV news. It suggests these shows are ignoring the disproportionate impacts that climate change has on both women and people of color. For example, The New York Times reported that while “climate change is a collective problem, its burdens — displacement, homelessness, poverty, sexual violence, disease — weigh more heavily on women and girls.” Additionally, a recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) noted that “racial and ethnic minority communities are particularly vulnerable to the greatest impacts of climate change.” The networks' choices on experts invited to appear in climate segments also largely failed at adequately representing women and people of color.
Nightly news shows in 2021 featured 189 people in climate segments who were invited on as guests. The vast majority of these guests were white men.
Approximately 154 guests (81%) in broadcast evening news’ climate segments in 2021 were white people, while only 35 (19%) were people of color. Additionally, 143 guests (76%) were men, while only 46 guests (24%) were women. Of those 143 men, 121 were white, meaning that 64% of all named guests in 2021 nightly news climate segments were white men. Thirty-three out of the 46 women guests were white, accounting for 17% of all guests in climate coverage.
This is similar to the make-up of nightly news guests in 2020, when white men made up 75% of all guests compared to only five people of color, representing just 7% of the nightly news guest count.
Among the people of color who appeared in climate segments on broadcast evening news in 2021, Hispanic or Latino guests were the most featured, appearing 19 times. There were also eight Black guests, three Native American guests, three South Asian guests, one Middle Eastern guest, and Pacific Islander guest. Only four Black women appeared as guests on evening news climate segments in 2021. NBC Nightly News featured two women of color — climate scientist Melissa Burt on the January 27 edition, and Alicia Knapp of Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables on the September 23 edition. CBS Evening News and ABC’s World News Tonight each featured just one woman of color — entomologist Jessica Ware on the May 2 edition of CBS Evening News, and a Madagascar governmental official (whose name was not aired) detailing the climate-fueled famine in that country in the World News Tonight segment on November 1.
CBS Evening News featured the most guests in nightly news climate segments in 2021, with 80, and 17 were people of color (21%). NBC Nightly News featured 68 guests, with just 10 being people of color (15%). The evening programs on CBS and NBC each featured just 19 total women climate guests, or 24% and 28%, respectively. ABC’s World News Tonight featured 41 total climate guests, with just eight people of color and only eight women appearing to speak on issues related to the climate crisis.
Compared to its corporate broadcast counterparts, PBS NewsHour did not fare better. Out of a total of 136 guests in its 2021 climate segments, 89 were men (65%), while just 47 were women (35%). A whopping 112 of these 136 guests were white (82%), while just 23 were people of color (17%). Notably, 75 of PBS NewsHour’s climate guests (55%) were white men, while only nine were women of color (7%). Two of these nine were Black women: White House Council of Economic Advisers Chair Cecilia Rouse, who appeared in a March 15 segment on the American Rescue Plan, and the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice’s Catherine Coleman Flowers, who appeared in a July 7 segment on environmental justice. Other notable segments with people of color included live interviews with EPA Administrator Michael Regan on April 21; Couchiching First Nation attorney Tara Houska on June 7; and COP26 President Alok Sharma on June 21.
Morning news shows on broadcast TV networks in 2021 interviewed 292 total guests in segments on climate change. One hundred eighty-eight of these guests (64%) were men, while 103 of these guests (35%) were women. (One climate segment on Today featured an appearance by Kermit the Frog, who was counted among the total guests but not categorized for demographic purposes.) Two hundred thirty-nine of the 292 guests were white — 82% of the overall guest count. Only 52 guests were people of color, making up just 17% of total guests. One hundred sixty out of the 292 guests were white men, accounting for 55% of all guests in climate segments. Only 24 were women of color, representing just 8% of guests overall.
In 2020, by comparison, broadcast morning news show climate segments featured a total of 145 guests: 107 (74%) were men, while just 38 (26%) were women; 135 guests were white (93%), while just 10 were people of color (7%). In total, 103 out of 145 morning show climate guests in 2020 (71%) were white men, making for a slight improvement in this still-disproportionate representation in 2021.
Guests on Sunday morning political show climate segments in 2021 also once again skewed male and white. Thirty-nine of the 53 guests were male (74%), while just 14 guests were women (26%). Forty-four guests were white (83%), while just nine were people of color (17%). Notably, 33 guests were white men (62%), while only three guests were women of color: Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Cecilia Rouse on the April 4 edition of Face the Nation; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) on the June 27 edition of Meet the Press; and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres on the October 31 edition of Face the Nation.
2021’s upward trend of appearances by those most impacted by climate change shows that broadcast TV news is beginning to cover the climate crisis as a current rather than a future event
Corporate broadcast news is finally more consistently characterizing extreme weather as climate events while covering the myriad ways the crisis is impacting communities across the globe. As a result, coverage in 2021 included more guests who represent those communities or are responding to the ravages of climate change. For the first time in Media Matters’ series of annual studies, 107 guests — 20% of total guests — across nightly, morning, and Sunday morning political news shows in 2021 were categorized as members of a frontline community, impacted community, or first responders.
Nightly news’ climate segments in 2021 featured 22 guests who were categorized as frontline community members, which Media Matters defined as someone who lives in a community that is situated in proximity to fossil fuel infrastructure or uniquely affected by ongoing climate impacts on their health, livelihood or local economy. The majority of these guests (13) were people of color, which accurately represents the disproportionate climate impacts that these communities face. For example, impacted Guatemalans were guests in four climate segments about increasing heat waves, droughts, and stronger hurricanes leading to more climate migration — one on the April 7 edition of CBS Evening News; two on the April 10 edition of CBS Evening News; three on the April 22 edition of World News Tonight; and two on the September 21 edition of NBC Nightly News. Three members of the Native American Quileute tribe were also interviewed on the November 4 edition of CBS Evening News about rising seas and flooding threatening their traditional homeland in the Pacific Northwest.
Additionally, 31 guests were identified as impacted community members, which Media Matters defined as people who are impacted by a single climate event or ongoing climate impacts which have affected their livelihood or caused destruction to their home or local infrastructure or economy. Nineteen guests were state or local officials speaking about efforts to respond to climate-fueled events, and nine were first responders to extreme weather events.
Morning news shows featured 12 guests who were part of a frontline community during climate segments in 2021. The majority of these 12 were white men. They appeared in segments discussing climate impacts on lobsters making it more difficult for fishermen to make a living (the April 17 edition of Today); homeowners suffering due to rising waters in the Great Lakes (the April 22 edition of Good Morning America); and several farmers in the western U.S. who are affected by the ongoing drought (the June 7 and 11 editions of CBS Mornings, and the June 10 edition of Today). Only four people of color were represented: two members of the Quileute tribe (the November 16 episode of CBS Mornings); a Guatemalan farmer struggling to make a living due to the increased intensity of drought, heat, and hurricanes (the April 8 edition of CBS Mornings); and a Maldives resident affected by rising sea levels (the November 3 edition of Good Morning America).
Twenty-nine impacted community members appeared as guests in morning show climate segments. The majority of these guests appeared in segments on various 2021 extreme weather events. Two appeared at the end of the year, in reporting on climate’s potential impact on the deadly midwestern tornadoes in Kentucky (the December 19 edition of Today). Only two first responders appeared as morning show climate guests, both on CBS Mornings in wildfire segments — a battalion chief fighting California’s Dixie Fire on August 6, and a Cal Fire member fighting the state’s Caldor Fire on August 31.
Broadcast TV’s Sunday morning shows featured no impacted community members or first responders as climate guests in 2021. They did include two frontline community members — Maui, Hawaii, residents Filemon Sadang and John Seebert during the October 31 edition of This Week. The segment dealt with how Maui is planning to address rising sea levels and flooding.
Scientists were well-represented in climate coverage in 2021 across morning and nightly news and Sunday political shows
Nightly news shows’ climate segments in 2021 featured 42 guests who were scientists. This represented 22% of the 189 overall guests — a sizable increase from 2020, when just 11% of guests were scientists.
Importantly, 23 of those 42 guests were climate scientists. In fact, climate scientists were the most-represented profession on nightly news climate segments in 2021. NBC Nightly News featured the highest proportion of climate scientists as guests, with 12, while CBS Evening News featured seven, and four climate scientists appeared on ABC’s World News Tonight.
NASA climate scientist Josh Willis appeared three times (the June 17, July 12, and July 13 edition of NBC Nightly News), Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann appeared twice (the October 27 and December 16 editions of NBC Nightly News), and Guatemalan climate scientist Edwin Castellanos also appeared twice (the April 7 and April 10 editions of CBS Evening News). Only three climate scientist guests on evening news shows in 2021 were women — Melissa Burt on the January 27 edition of NBC Nightly News, Joanne Kerbavaz of California State Parks on the February 21 edition of CBS Evening News, and NASA scientist Kerry Cawse-Nicholson on the July 21 edition of NBC Nightly News.
Additionally, approximately 13 non-scientist guests in 2021’s evening news climate segments were categorized as experts in their particular fields, based on our definitions. These included academics, researchers, local meteorologists, and former government officials in scientific agencies. Media Matters began tracking appearances by experts in 2021, categorizing their various fields to demonstrate that climate change is a multidimensional issue that touches many disciplines.
Morning news shows’ climate segments in 2021 featured 57 guests out of 292 total (20%) who we classified as scientists. Of these 57 guests, 22 were climate scientists. This is similar to 2020, when 29 scientists (including 15 climate scientists) appeared as guests in broadcast morning news climate segments, again representing just 20% of overall guests.
Several climate scientists in 2021 appeared in more than one morning show segment as guests. These included Daniel Swain of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA (the June 20 edition of Today and the September 2 edition of Good Morning America); Carlos Duarte, an aquatic ecologist at King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia (the August 27 and 28 editions of Good Morning America); and Katharine Hayhoe, professor at Texas Tech University and chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, who has been called "perhaps the best communicator on climate change” (the June 17 edition of Today and the October 5 edition of CBS Mornings).
There was only one woman of color among climate scientists featured as guests in morning news segments in 2021: Dr. Lola Fatoyinbo of NASA on the April 15 edition of Today. In total, there were only five women of color who appeared as scientists in morning show climate coverage (including Dr. Fatoyinbo).
Additionally, we categorized 40 morning show climate guests as experts in this year’s study.
2021 was only the second time in six years that a climate scientist was featured as a guest in a Sunday show climate segment. In fact, the Sunday morning political shows featured two climate scientists as guests in 2021: Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University and Kristina Dahl of the Union of Concerned Scientists on the August 8 edition of ABC’s This Week, in a segment focused on climate change, global wildfires, and how to combat the crisis. The only other scientist in a Sunday show climate segment in 2021 was Dr. Anthony Fauci, who appeared on the March 14 edition of Meet the Press.
Politicians lost a sizable share of guest representation from 2020 to 2021
In 2020, politicians were the most represented group of guests featured in climate segments. Seventy-seven politicians appeared across climate segments on the nightly news, morning news and Sunday morning political shows — accounting for 33% of all guests. In 2021, only 34 politicians were featured in climate segments, making up just 6% of guests. Of these, left-leaning politicians appeared more than two times as much as right-leaning politicians — 24 and 10, respectively. Politicians have thus lost a sizable share of guest representation from 2020 to 2021.
Nightly news shows featured nine politicians as guests in climate segments, and eight were classified as left-leaning. Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom appeared the most frequently, at three times — on the July 28 edition of CBS Evening News, the August 25 edition of World News Tonight, and the September 1 edition of NBC Nightly News. The only right-leaning politician to appear in an evening news climate segment was Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who discussed the western drought on the June 11 edition of CBS Evening News.
In addition to politicians, federal administration officials appeared in eight climate segments on nightly news shows in 2021. U.S. Special Climate Envoy John Kerry was the most featured federal administration official — he appeared four times throughout the year (the January 27, November 12, and November 13 editions of CBS Evening News, and the January 27 edition of World News Tonight). White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy (March 21 edition of CBS Evening News), EPA Administrator Michael Regan (August 5 edition of CBS Evening News), Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (April 1 edition of CBS Evening News), and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (September 7 edition of CBS Evening News) rounded out the federal administration appearances.
Morning news shows featured 10 politicians as guests in climate segments in 2021; eight were left-leaning and two were right-leaning. Both Newsom and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy appeared twice — Murphy discussed Hurricane Ida on the September 2 edition of Good Morning America and the September 3 episode of Today, while Newsom spoke of wildfires on the September 2 edition of Today and the September 13 edition of Good Morning America. The two right-leaning politicians were Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who discussed rising sea levels on the May 27 edition of CBS Mornings, and Utah’s Cox, who discussed drought on the June 10 edition of Today.
In addition to politicians, federal administration officials appeared in 13 segments. Kerry was also the most featured guest on morning TV news, appearing four times on CBS Mornings (February 19, July 27, November 6, and November 13) and once on ABC’s Good Morning America (September 28). McCarthy was featured in three climate segments — twice on NBC’s Today (January 27 and February 20), and once on CBS Mornings (November 2).
The vast majority of guests on Sunday morning political shows in 2021 were politicians (15) or federal officials (14). Eight of those politicians were classified as left-leaning, while seven were classified as right-leaning. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) each appeared across two different segments; Cassidy on the January 31 edition of Fox News Sunday and the February 7 edition of Meet the Press, and Khanna on the October 24 edition of Fox News Sunday and the October 31 edition of Face the Nation. Among federal officials, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg appeared across three different segments (the August 8 edition of Fox News Sunday, the October 17 edition of Meet the Press, and the October 31 edition of This Week). McCarthy discussed the April Global Climate Summit and climate solutions with ABC meteorologist Ginger Zee on the April 25 edition of This Week, while Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm discussed her department’s climate initiatives on the June 6 edition of Meet the Press.
Climate activists and advocates were not as prominently featured in climate coverage during 2021 as they’ve been in the past
Nightly news programs featured 18 climate advocates, which we defined as those who lead climate efforts as part of a nongovernmental organization, and only three climate activists in 2021. Only one of the three activists represented the youth climate movement — Luisa Neubauer of Germany, who discussed flooding that ravaged parts of Western Europe in a July segment on NBC Nightly News. In comparison, climate activism was a huge driver of broadcast TV climate coverage in 2019, when activists made up 16% of overall climate coverage on nightly news and Sunday morning shows and Greta Thunberg appeared in nine climate segments.
Climate activists appeared 15 times in morning TV news climate segments in 2021. Notable guests included Thunberg, who appeared twice, including in a live interview on the October 12 edition of NBC’s Today; Julianna Bradley and Georgia Wright, who conducted an Earth Day interview on the April 22 edition of CBS Mornings; Liza Goldberg on the April 15 edition of Today; and Alexandria Villaseñor on the April 26 edition of Today.
Notably, alongside the previously mentioned frontline community members, two activists appeared as guests on Sunday morning political shows during the October 31 edition of This Week. The segment discussed rising sea levels affecting Maui, Hawaii.
There were three key drivers of climate coverage on corporate broadcast TV news in 2021
The three major drivers of climate coverage on corporate broadcast TV news in 2021 were global extreme weather events, which primarily occurred during the summer months; various climate initiatives put forth by President Biden; and the COP26 meeting in November.
Summer 2021 was full of global extreme weather events that were costly, deadly, and intensified by climate change. The United States had the hottest June on record and the most extreme heat wave in history, with record-breaking and deadly temperatures hitting the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, Canada, in June, followed by the hottest month ever recorded on Earth in July. In Western Europe, severe rainfall led to catastrophic flooding that caused hundreds of deaths in Germany and Belgium, becoming the costliest weather event in European history. In China, extreme weather produced a year’s worth of rain over the course of a few days in the city of Zhengzhou, affecting more than 3 million people. In late August and early September, warmer than usual ocean water helped Hurricane Ida rapidly intensify from a Category 1 to a Category 4 storm as it became one of the most intense tropical storms in the U.S. on record, leaving devastation along the Gulf Coast and triggering record rainfall and flooding across the Northeast.
The longstanding drought in the western U.S. — the worst in 1,200 years — was further intensified by the summer’s extreme heat conditions, and both were key factors in producing extremely intense wildfires, which burned 7.7 million acres in all of 2021. In August, California’s Dixie Fire became the largest single fire in state history. Wildfires also hit much of the Mediterranean region that month, no doubt exacerbated by the hottest summer in European history.
Notably, after years of largely failing to link extreme weather and climate change, corporate broadcast TV news has finally started to more consistently acknowledge these connections, increasingly discussing climate change when reporting on these weather events. In fact, coverage of extreme weather events represented 35% of combined broadcast nightly and morning news climate segments in 2021.
Nightly news shows aired 90 segments that featured discussion of extreme weather events, making up nearly half of the 181 nightly news climate segments last year. Sixty of these 90 segments came during reporting on summer extreme weather. In total, NBC Nightly News ran 40 extreme weather segments, constituting 68% of its 59 overall climate segments. ABC’s World News Tonight ran 26 extreme weather segments, which constituted 46% of its 57 overall climate segments. CBS Evening News ran 24 extreme weather segments, which constituted 37% of its 65 overall climate segments.
Climate mentions within reporting on summer extreme weather events were generally centered on stories from the U.S. Wildfires in California and other western states were the most-mentioned extreme weather event in climate segments on broadcast nightly news in 2021, occurring 23 times. This was followed by U.S. heat waves, which were mentioned 19 times. The western megadrought was mentioned 14 times, and Hurricane Ida was mentioned eight times. Summer flooding mentions, which included Chinese, European, and global stories, occurred eight times. European wildfires were mentioned three times, while the European heat wave was mentioned once.
Besides the summer extreme weather events, the extreme cold that hit Texas in February was mentioned seven times on evening news last year. The Madagascar drought was mentioned three times (all on ABC’s World News Tonight), while December’s Midwestern tornadoes and a worsening Central American drought were mentioned twice each.
Morning news shows aired 123 segments in 2021 which featured discussion of extreme weather events, representing 34% of their 363 overall climate segments. This included 84 segments that dealt with various extreme weather events that occurred primarily during the summer months, including U.S. and European wildfires, U.S. heat waves, global flooding, hurricanes, and the western U.S. drought.
CBS Mornings covered these events in 31 climate segments. ABC’s Good Morning America mentioned these events in 30 climate segments, while NBC’s Today covered these in 26 climate segments. Summer U.S. heat waves were the most-mentioned extreme weather event, occurring 29 times, and 13 of these mentions dealt specifically with the Pacific Northwest heat wave. Wildfires in California and other western states were mentioned 22 times. Hurricane Ida was mentioned 20 times, while the western U.S. drought was mentioned 15 times.
Other major extreme weather events covered by broadcast morning news shows last year included the extreme cold in Texas, the March and December tornados that ravaged parts of the U.S. Midwest, the Madagascar drought, and Tropical Storm Henri.
Sunday morning political shows aired 13 segments that featured discussion of extreme weather, an improvement over years prior when the shows rarely discussed the issue. The most frequently discussed extreme weather events on the Sunday shows in 2021 were the western U.S. drought, which was mentioned four times, followed by western U.S. wildfires and global extreme weather, which were mentioned three times each.
President Biden’s climate agenda
Climate action was a key pillar of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020. As a candidate, his platform included a $2 trillion spending plan that aimed to achieve net zero emissions for the U.S. by 2050 and pledges to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and ban fracking on federal lands.
Since taking office in January 2021, President Biden has announced numerous climate initiatives that have garnered coverage by TV news shows. Some of the major moments included signing a slate of climate executive orders on January 27; hosting a two-day virtual climate summit in April that was attended by 40 world leaders; pursuing his Build Back Better agenda during the summer and fall with the introduction of two major packages, the infrastructure bill and the reconciliation budget bill, both containing massive climate spending; and attending COP26 in November with many members of his cabinet.
Presidential climate actions or statements have played a key role in previous iterations of Media Matters’ annual broadcast study; for example, then-President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord was a big talking point in 2017, while climate change’s role in the presidential election was a major driver of climate coverage in the 2020 study.
Nightly news shows aired 35 segments in 2021 that included a discussion of the various climate initiatives and actions undertaken by the Biden administration, or 19% of their total climate segments. CBS Evening News referenced Biden climate actions in 13 segments, while ABC’s World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News referenced Biden climate actions in 11 segments each.
Overall, climate components of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda represented by the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the budget reconciliation bill were mentioned 17 times on broadcast nightly news last year; there were also five mentions of the global climate summit in April, followed by three mentions each of both his January climate executive orders and the administration’s decision to rejoin the Paris climate agreement.
Morning news shows aired 56 segments that covered the various climate initiatives put forth by the Biden administration this past year — accounting for 15% of overall climate coverage. Mentions of either the bipartisan infrastructure bill or Biden’s Build Back Back agenda occurred 26 times. Biden’s Global Climate Summit on Earth Day was mentioned 10 times, while his decision to rejoin the Paris climate accord was mentioned eight times (on the flip side, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement was mentioned seven times).
CBS aired 25 morning show segments on Biden’s climate initiatives; it was also the only network to mention the administration’s electric vehicle sales goal. NBC aired 22 morning segments on Biden’s climate initiatives; it was the only network to mention how the Biden administration is making climate change a national security priority. ABC aired nine segments that discussed Biden administration climate initiatives; it was also the only network to mention Biden’s offshore wind expansion plan.
Sunday morning political shows dedicated 27 of their 60 climate segments last year (45%) to discussing Biden’s climate actions. The infrastructure bill and the president’s Build Back Better agenda were the main drivers of the Sunday shows’ climate coverage, accounting for 19 of the 27 segments. Biden’s executive orders on climate change in January as well as his decision to rejoin the Paris climate accord were also featured in these segments.
But while some coverage was dedicated to Biden’s seminal climate spending in both the infrastructure bill and the reconciliation budget bill, morning and evening news shows missed numerous chances to connect these spending packages to climate stories.
A total of 43 climate segments on corporate broadcast TV news shows in 2021 — 26 on morning news and 17 on evening news – featured a mention or discussion of the climate elements of either Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill or his Build Back Better agenda. However, there were vastly more times where climate was mentioned but glossed over in segments on this legislation. Climate change was just a passing mention — meaning it was referenced along with a litany of other items and never expanded upon in the segment — in at least 104 of these segments. Morning and evening news shows thus missed ample opportunities to explain why the climate elements of his agenda are extremely important, and maybe the last chance to pass meaningful climate legislation in the near future.
Inclusions of the infrastructure bill or Build Back Better in climate segments were generally brief. Many of these mentions came in segments about COP26 in November discussing Biden’s arrival and plans at COP26, along with his agenda back home.
It wasn’t just coverage of the president’s Build Back Better agenda that missed opportunities for substantive climate discussion — climate change was a passing mention in 27 segments on the G7 meetings in June. None of these G7 segments discussed climate in depth, despite the important climate news to come out of these meetings. For example, G7 leaders pledged to give $100 billion yearly to poorer nations to help them adapt to climate change. The countries also committed to keeping alive the goal of limiting global warming to less than 1.5 C. Viewers of these segments that glossed over these commitments thus came away from the G7 segments with zero understanding of the importance of climate to these meetings.
The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), which took place in Glasgow, Scotland, over a two-week period in November, was another key driver of climate coverage for broadcast TV news shows in 2021. The most important world climate gathering to date, the conference was billed as the “last best chance” to achieve the goals of the Paris climate accord.
Nightly news shows aired 24 segments — 13% of their 181 total climate segments in 2021 — that centered on the global climate conference. ABC’s World News Tonight ran nine such segments on COP26; CBS Evening News ran eight segments, and NBC Nightly News ran seven.
Morning news shows discussed COP26 in a combined 40 climate segments, constituting 11% of overall morning news climate coverage. ABC referenced the conference in 12 segments, CBS in 11 segments, and NBC in 16 segments.
Sunday morning political shows discussed COP26 in seven segments. NBC’s Meet the Press referenced it three times, followed by CBS’ Face the Nation, which referenced it twice. Both ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos and Fox News Sunday referenced it once.
PBS NewsHour’s climate segments in 2021 were similar to its corporate broadcast counterparts in terms of what drove coverage. Both Biden administration climate actions and extreme weather were discussed the most, referenced across 45 of the show's 151 total climate segments last year. The infrastructure bill and Biden’s Build Back Better agenda were mentioned in 16 segments. Hurricane Ida was the most-mentioned extreme weather event on the show, referenced in nine climate segments. However, COP26 wasn’t as big of a driver of coverage compared to nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, or NBC, mentioned in just 12 segments.
Other notable drivers
Other notable drivers of climate coverage on broadcast news in 2021 included climate impacts and climate solutions. Impacts were mostly discussed within the context of climate change influencing certain types of extreme weather events, including drought, heat waves, hurricanes, and wildfires. Many mentions of climate solutions came within the context of Biden’s climate initiatives or COP26, including mentions where shows framed climate action as a way to create jobs in the already growing clean energy sector or generally touted the economic benefits of clean energy.
In 2020, clean energy jobs or the economic benefits of clean energy were mentioned only four times. In 2021, this number shot up, with clean energy jobs or economic benefits referenced in varying capacities 26 times within solutions segments on morning and nightly news shows.
Nightly news discussed climate’s impact on public health in 15 segments; its impacts on marine life as well as agriculture and food were each mentioned in 10 segments. Its impact on melting ice was mentioned in nine segments, while the economic impact of climate change was mentioned in seven segments. Other impact mentions included two on winemaking, and one each on the cicada emergence, the Great Barrier Reef, and Florida’s red tides.
Notable solutions included six segments on electric transportation and four on the need to harden or modernize the electric grid.
Morning news discussed climate change’s impacts on melting ice 21 times, and sea level rise 20 times. Impacts on marine life were mentioned 16 times, impacts on food and agriculture were mentioned 15 times, and impacts on public health were mentioned 10 times. Unique impact mentions included two on coastal erosion, two on alcoholic beverages, one on mental health (climate anxiety), and one on a shift in the Earth's axis. Additionally, there were three mentions on how climate change is a national security issue. Wars, like the one in Ukraine now, worsen the global climate crisis, and it’s important to make that point in TV news coverage of climate.
Notable solutions coverage on morning shows in 2021 included 10 mentions on electrifying transportation, four on wind energy (both onshore and offshore), and two specific to investing in green infrastructure, the need to reduce methane emissions, and consuming plant-based products.
Impacts not related to extreme weather events and solutions did not play as big of a role in driving climate coverage on Sunday shows as they did on morning and evening shows. The economic impact of climate change and sea-level rise were mentioned four times each, while climate’s impact on making viruses worse was mentioned once. For solutions, clean energy was mentioned seven times, electric vehicles three times, and suing fossil fuel companies was mentioned once.
There were numerous segments on traditionally ignored environmental or climate issues
As part of the increase in the quantity of climate coverage in 2021, broadcast TV news tackled several climate issues that have been traditionally overlooked by TV news.
There were 18 climate segments on broadcast news last year that discussed climate justice issues. For example, the February 17 edition of CBS Mornings included an interview with musician Sza, who discussed her climate activism and noted how climate change is disproportionately impacting lower-income communities. Another climate segment on CBS Mornings on April 28 discussed Black farmers and climate change. Co-host Gayle King noted that “over the last century, America’s Black farmers have lost more than 90% of their land because of systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt.” The segment then delved into a farm in upstate New York that is “at the crossroads of racial equity and climate change.”
At the international level, there is a strong case that richer nations should help poorer nations to both quicken their clean energy transition and deal with the climate impacts that disproportionately affect the global south. Rarely have these issues been talked about in climate segments on corporate broadcast TV networks. In 2021, however, climate financing was discussed four times, all in segments on COP26.
Perhaps most importantly, the costs of inaction far outweigh the costs of actually taking climate action. Four segments — two each on CBS Mornings and NBC’s Today — mentioned this. The September 5 edition of Today, set against the backdrop of Hurricane Ida and a summer of financially destructive extreme weather events, devoted an entire segment to the cost of inaction. It included an excellent interview with NBC’s environmental correspondent Anne Thompson and Dr. Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists:
Finally, there were numerous segments this year that discussed climate change’s impacts on events like tornados and extreme cold weather. None of climate’s impacts on these types of extreme weather were discussed in 2020. And, for the first time ever, broadcast TV news ran segments about how climate change is influencing migration from the global south to northern countries like the U.S., including several segments featuring Guatemalan migrants. One recent report says that climate change could displace over 200 million people by 2050.
It’s an extremely important issue that is worthy of more coverage in the future, and Media Matters will be diligently following how broadcast news handles this and other vital climate stories in 2022.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Nexis database for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, 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, 2021.
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 also included instances of a guest mentioning climate change in a network correspondent segment if the context of the segment was clearly about a climate, energy, or environmental issue.
When counting guests, we counted 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, previous iterations of this study included “person on the street” interviewees as guests.
We timed identified segments using the Kinetiq video database or YouTube if a network posted the segment to that website. We timed only the relevant portions of multitopic 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.
Charts by Molly Butler of Media Matters.
Update (3/24/22): The study has been updated to reflect Katharine Hayhoe’s current titles.