Media Matters / Andrea Austria

Research/Study Research/Study

How broadcast TV news covered environmental justice in 2021

Broadcast TV news coverage of environmental justice saw a quantitative and qualitative improvement in 2021 over the previous four years. However, 2021 was still rife with missed opportunities to contextualize the complex harms that racism, economic exploitation, and environmental injustice have on vulnerable communities; hold industries accountable for environmental degradation; and highlight the solutions that exist to mitigate these harms.

Media Matters analyzed broadcast news coverage of any pollution impacts to the air, water, and soil -- particularly those caused by the fossil fuel and chemical industries -- regulatory actions, or environmental health hazards that impact specific demographic groups or communities, and counted mentions of at least one socially marginalized population as an environmental justice segment.

Media Matters analyzed the morning and evening news programs for ABC, CBS, and NBC from January 1 through December 31, 2021. In addition, weeknight episodes of PBS NewsHour were reviewed for a comparison point to their corporate broadcast counterparts, but they were not included in the full dataset.

  • Key Findings

    • Broadcast morning and evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 153 segments about environmental impacts, regulations, or health hazards in all of 2021, and just 19 of them (12%) included mention of a socially marginalized community.
    • CBS aired the most environmental justice segments (13), followed by NBC (4), and ABC (2).
    • While not included in the official results, PBS NewsHour aired 13 environmental justice segments.
    • The majority of environmental justice segments focused on government action (14) and the health impacts of pollution or chemical waste (9).
    • Topics such as industrial accidents (2) and disaster recovery (3) were rarely reported through an environmental justice lens.
    • National TV news shows missed key opportunities to apply an environmental justice lens to important national stories such as the 2021 Texas winter storm, a toxic wastewater leak in Florida, and the Colonial pipeline hack.
    • Even segments about obvious environmental justice stories, such as the lead water crisis in Benton Harbor, Michigan, were mostly shallow and lacked important context.
  • National TV news only aired 19 environmental justice segments in 2021, which was still an improvement from 2020

  • Corporate broadcast TV news networks aired 19 environmental justice segments in 2021. CBS, which clearly outpaced the other broadcast networks, aired the highest number of such segments (13), followed by NBC (4), and ABC (2).

  • Corporate broadcast news networks aired 19 environmental justice segments in 2021
    Network Total environmental pollution segments Mentioned effects on socially marginalized communities Percentage
    ABC 43 2 5%
    CBS 57 13 23%
    NBC 53 4 8%
      153 19 12%
  • This represents a clear quantitative improvement over 2020, when broadcast networks aired only 4 such segments combined. In fact, 2021 is tied for the highest number of environmental justice segments aired since 2017, when broadcast networks also aired 19.

  • Combined broadcast news environmental justice segments aired from 2017 to 2021
    2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
    19 2 5 4 19
  • The environmental justice segments that aired in 2021 were also qualitatively better than in years past. For example, most of 2017’s environmental justice segments were focused on Indigenous opposition to the development of fossil fuel infrastructure such as the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines or the Trump administration's decision to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. However, these segments often failed to substantively discuss the long-term harms that pipelines and mining have on the water and soil of the surrounding Indigenous communities. 

    In contrast, corporate broadcast news in 2021 did a better overall job producing environmental justice segments that examined the systemic ills plaguing vulnerable communities forced to live with the consequences of environmental degradation.

  • 2021’s stronger environmental justice segments focused on local stories of environmental racism and the health impacts of pollution

  • CBS Mornings aired a strong segment on April 1, 2021, about how the developers of the Byhalia pipeline were pressuring Black homeowners in Memphis, Tennessee, to give up their land or have it taken via eminent domain. The pipeline also posed a threat to the city's groundwater, which draws from a deep aquifer and is considered among the highest quality in the world. The segment featured local homeowners and activists from Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, now known as Memphis Community Against Pollution, who detailed why the project and the developer’s actions were clear examples of environmental racism. (In July, the developers announced that they were canceling the pipeline.)

  • Citation From the April 1, 2021, episode of CBS Mornings

  • The June 17, 2021, episode of NBC’s Today featured a segment about how the low-income residents of McDowell County, West Virginia, were finding it difficult to find clean drinking water due to government neglect of water infrastructure and potential pollution from nearby natural gas drilling.

  • Citation From the June 17, 2021, episode of NBC's Today

  • ABC’s World News Tonight aired a segment on April 23, 2021, about the Snake River, which runs through four states in the Pacific Northwest and is considered by some environmentalists to be the most endangered river in America because the salmon are near extinction due to a series of man-made dams. The segment briefly featured Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, who spoke to what is at stake for his tribe, because “ if the salmon are gone, that’s the way we go, too.”

  • Citation From the April 23, 2021, episode of ABC's World News Tonight

  • Broadcast news coverage in 2021 again missed opportunities to focus national stories on environmental justice

  • Despite these notable examples, broadcast news shows again missed opportunities to apply an environmental justice lens to several highly covered news stories. 

    Biden administration environmental justice actions

    In 2021, the Biden administration made commitments to core environmental justice issues such as improving water and air quality, Superfund cleanup, and environmental enforcement. The administration also created the Justice40 Initiative, which “committed to delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of Federal climate, clean energy, affordable and sustainable housing, clean water, and other investments to disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”

    Although former President Donald Trump drove much of the environmental justice coverage in 2017, mostly due to his decision to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, President Joe Biden did not receive comparable coverage for his environmental justice initiatives from the corporate broadcast networks in 2021. 

    In comparison, PBS NewsHour aired a notable segment on October 11, 2021, about the Biden administration’s order to restore the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monuments, which overturned the Trump administration’s 2017 decision. The segment featured Nick Martin, Indigenous affairs editor for High Country News, who discussed the importance of preserving sacred cultural sites from environmental degradation.

  • Citation From the October 11, 2021, episode of PBS NewsHour

  • 2021 Texas winter storm

    Corporate broadcast news often fails to contextualize the socioeconomic realities that make low-income and minority communities less able to afford the economic costs of evacuating, rebuilding, or relocating associated with extreme weather events. These inequities are often compounded by discriminatory practices in receiving federal aid

    For example, millions of Texans were left without power for days after a devastating winter storm in February 2021 resulted in nearly $300 billion in damage. It is officially estimated that almost 250 Texans died in the disaster, while some experts believe the toll is much higher. Although climate change created the conditions for the storm, its widespread yet disparate harms also made it an environmental justice story. According to a New York Times story published in February 2021:

  • While the rolling blackouts in Texas have left some 4 million residents without power in brutally cold weather, experts and community groups say that many marginalized communities were the first to be hit with power outages, and if history serves as a guide, could be among the last to be reconnected. This is particularly perilous, they say, given that low-income households can lack the financial resources to flee to safety or to rebound after the disruption.

    Experts worry, in particular, that rising energy prices amid surging demand will leave many families in the lurch, unable to pay their utility bills next month and triggering utility cutoffs at a time when they are at their most vulnerable. In Texas’ deregulated electricity market, prices can fluctuate with demand, leading to a potential jump in electric bills for poorer households that already spend a disproportionate amount of income on utilities.

  • Although there were multiple segments about the winter storm and subsequent blackouts from the corporate broadcast networks, none made the connection. The only segment that made the environmental justice connection aired during the February 18, 2021, episode of PBS NewsHour featuring longtime environmental justice researcher and activist Robert Bullard, who spoke to the disproportionate economic difficulties Black residents confronted in the wake of the devastating storm.

  • Citation From the February 18, 2021, episode of PBS NewsHour

  • Toxic wastewater leak in Florida

    Broadcast news shows in 2021 aired multiple segments about industrial accidents that occurred across the country. Most of these segments were news briefs about a particular incident, and very few contextualized the disproportionate harm these explosions, leaks, and spills do to low-income communities and communities of color.

    For example, in early April 2021, hundreds of residents in Manatee County, Florida, had to evacuate because a shuttered fertilizer plant in the Tampa Bay area threatened the surrounding groundwater, soil, and local water supply. The reservoir at the Piney Point plant, which leaked millions of gallons of toxic wastewater, fortunately, never fully breached

    Like many industrial chemical sites, this plant has a long history of polluting the surrounding community. According to The Guardian:

  • Within a year of Piney Point being built, its original owners – a subsidiary of Borden, the glue and milk company – were caught dumping waste into nearby Bishop Harbor, a marine estuary that flows into Tampa Bay. The plant repeatedly changed hands throughout the years, all the while continuing causing numerous human health and environmental disasters and incidents.

  • CBS Evening News was the only broadcast news show to mention that toxic plants and leaks are sited near vulnerable communities; during the April 5, 2021, episode, environmental activist Brook Armstrong noted that containment pods are often located in low-income communities.

  • Colonial pipeline hack

    Colonial’s handling of one of the largest gasoline leaks in American history, which was discovered by two teenagers in Huntersville, North Carolina, in August 2020, was already a local scandal well before the company announced on May 8, 2021, that it was under a ransomware attack from Eastern European hackers. The Colonial Pipeline cyberattack and its ramifications quickly became a national story during the next week, while the company’s devastating gas leak never became part of that larger coverage. As Nakisa Glover, the Hip Hop Caucus Think 100% climate and environmental justice organizer near the Colonial gas leak, told Media Matters last May:

  • There was a huge missed opportunity during the recent coverage of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack to also discuss the harm fossil fuel pipeline infrastructure has on communities.

    What we have witnessed from Colonial is just the tip of the iceberg and is one of the primary reasons why Black and Brown people don’t want pipelines in their communities, where there is already a disproportionate number of toxic industries. These pipelines exist in the backyard of our schools, run under our homes, through our waterways, and they leak and pollute all the time. We are seeing the battle against pipeline infrastructure play out with Line 3 in Minnesota, Line 5 in Michigan, and the Byhalia Connection Pipeline in Memphis, Tennessee, which was rerouted from a predominately white, rich community to a Black community.

    Now that the public is well-aware of Colonial, they should have also been informed about the harm pipelines like Colonial cause to communities across our country. The media has a duty to begin telling these stories and connecting them at all of their intersecting points. Black, Indigenous, other communities of color and low-wealth communities across the country are fighting for a just, equitable, green, and regenerative future. And their voices must be heard.

  • Barely clearing the bar: broadcast coverage of the water crisis in Benton Harbor, Michigan

  • The residents of Benton Harbor, Michigan – the majority of whom are Black and poor – have been under a state advisory since late 2018 because of high lead levels in the city’s water

    After nearly four years of silence, broadcast news first began covering the crisis on October 12, 2021, after a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency forced the state to provide the residents of Benton Harbor with bottled water. Most of the segments focused on the buck passing between state and local officials. CBS was the only network that framed the water crisis in Benton Harbor as an environmental justice story, airing two segments that featured local activists, including the Rev. Edward Pinkney, and EPA Administrator Michael Regan. In fact, CBS Evening News aired a segment on December 16 that explicitly connected the Biden administration’s allocation of funds to replace lead pipes with the lead crisis in Benton Harbor, and even challenged Regan to answer, “When will people in these communities actually see change?”

  • Citation From the December 16, 2021, episode of CBS Evening News

  • However, most other coverage failed to frame the story around environmental justice, leaving out important context about who was being harmed and why. To help viewers understand the scope and magnitude of the lead problem, segments about the water crisis in Benton Harbor should have brought accountability to those responsible for the poisoned water, and a strong environmental justice story must do much more than provide brief demographic mentions while excluding the millions of people from across the country who are exposed to lead via their water supplies – especially when  a disproportionate number of them are Black or low income. According to EcoWatch:

  • But a study into one of the most enduring of these threats — lead poisoning among children — provides a new measure of what many say is the toxic effect of systematic racism in the US.

    Using publicly available data collected by the CDC from a representative sample of thousands of children aged one to five over an 11-year period, the study, published in February by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that black children living below the poverty line are twice as likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood than poor white or Hispanic children.

  • The coverage of Benton Harbor highlights the limits of broadcast news’ understanding of environmental justice. Presented with a story that encapsulated how America’s legacy of racial and economic injustice produces disproportionately poor outcomes for marginalized communities, national TV news shows largely chose anodyne framing about a government’s failure to deliver potable water to its residents. This distinct failure to include vital context for broadcast news audiences also, in no small part, hides the true scale of environmental injustices by siloing them away from the public’s broader understanding of policies that materially harm socially marginalized people every day.

  • In their own words: How national TV news can improve its environmental justice reporting

  • Giving voice to those from socially marginalized communities who are working to advance climate and environmental justice is something corporate TV news rarely, if ever, does. People of color made up a dismal 18% of those featured in network news climate segments in 2021. 

    Including the voices of those directly affected by water pollution, air pollution, and exposure to toxic and hazardous substances, as well as those fighting and organizing to stop these environmental harms, must form the core of environmental justice reporting. With that in mind, Media Matters decided to incorporate the perspectives of some of the activists and leaders who were featured in environmental justice segments in 2021.

    Sandra Jones has been serving the community in Flint, Michigan, for years as CEO of the R.L. Jones Community Outreach Center, which provides food, water, and hygiene products, among many other services. Jones appeared in a segment that aired during the January 14, 2021, episode of PBS NewsHour to discuss the indictment of ex-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, among eight others, for criminal malfeasance related to the Flint water crisis.

  • Citation From the January 14, 2021, episode of PBS NewsHour

  • During our wide-ranging and engaging conversation, Jones discussed her aspirations for the NewsHour segment and the need for the world to know that despite many ongoing hardships, the people of Flint are resilient. She continued:

  • SANDRA JONES: My main objective was to get the true story out and remind everyone about the effects that lead poisoned water has had on our community and the national attention it brought to Flint. Despite Snyder’s being brought up on criminal charges, it was important to get the message out: The pipes still have not been replaced inside of all homes, Flint is a food desert and certain areas of the city are very impoverished. I appreciate the producers at PBS for reaching out to me, as it was an important opportunity to speak to the current experience of the people living in Flint. The Water Crisis has created a health inequity, especially to the disabled, seniors, children and the entire community that I truly don’t believe has even been discovered yet. Issues which have no name, mental trauma and so much more than I’m afraid we will be dealing with in time to come.

  • Intentionality and ownership were themes echoed during my conversation with Queen Quet, the first Queen Mother and official spokesperson for the Gullah/Geechee Nation – “people from numerous African ethnic groups linked with indigenous Americans” who live along the coast from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida. Queen Quet and the Gullah/Geechee people were featured in a two-part segment that aired on ABC’s Nightline in November 2021.

  • Citation From the November 12, 2021, episode of ABC's Nightline

  • Although this segment aired outside of the parameters of our methodology, it was such a quality piece of journalism on issues of environmental and climate justice that we wanted to interview Queen Quet to glean her unique insights about the segment and those subjects more broadly. The interview was wide-ranging and informative, especially since Queen Quet has been a prominent media figure for years. Media Matters began by asking her to discuss her impressions of the Nightline segment, and she told us:

  • QUEEN QUET: I knew the piece would be different when I realized that the correspondent was from the Carolinas and we developed a bond through conversation before the cameras even rolled. Having people read about you is different than having someone who has lived what you lived. So having him be from Carolina, he added value to the segment because of his own personal experiences. When I saw the finished segment, I understood that the people at Nightline did their due diligence and took their time to present us in a positive, uplifting manner and not as victims. There are a lot of people that want to attach death to Black people as opposed to attaching life to us, as opposed to attaching upliftment and advancement to us. But the Nightline segment was so poignant and moving and positive.

  • Reflecting on her positive experience with Nightline, especially how well it was received within her community, Media Matters asked Queen Quet to speak to the differences between a long-form segment, which a show like Nightline can produce, versus the shorter time constraints that are more typical for broadcast morning and evening news shows. Her answer was illustrative:

  • QUEEN QUET: It is about the intent of the piece. That’s number one. Number two is about whether or not they are coming with an open mind and open spirit to learn about what’s really happening in the communities they seek to cover, or whether they’re coming in with a preconceived notion about the story or the people. It’s also about the artistic or creative ability of the producers. If they are creative, there’s a lot they can pack into a three-minute segment that can be very impactful, especially if they’ve given thought to what they want to convey and how they can best encapsulate a major issue. Another powerful thing they can do is to provide a link to something more substantive, whether it’s a video, a blog post, or webpage within the segment itself. Drive some of the traffic to the communities or groups being featured.

  • We ended the conversation by asking Queen Quet what she would recommend to others seeking national media attention about an environmental justice story. And she responded with a powerful message for environmental justice advocates and activists:

  • QUEEN QUET: Control your narrative. Even if media outlets want to cover your story, you have the right to ask them questions. These include what do they really want from the story? And what do they intend to cover? Also feel free to offer people who you have identified to the producers as potential interviewees. This will help make sure that they are actually talking to folks who live on the ground and are familiar with the issues. Lastly, if you’re not happy with how the story came out, if it disrespects your community or misrepresents your community, you have the right to use your social media and blog to write about what they did.

  • At the end of our interview with Queen Quet, she left us with a statement that should inform how all news outlets approach their work: “People in power have to feel some discomfort when they see these stories.”

  • Unfortunately, when broadcast TV news deigns to cover an environmental justice story at all, it too often lacks accountability for the industries polluting the air, land, and water, while seeking to avoid responsibility for the harm that results -- and the public officials who look away.

    National TV news must expand its reporting about how environmental pollution and regulations impact specific socially marginalized communities, including why they are all too often at greater health risks, and what public policy solutions exist to address these challenges. Instead of siloing this reporting, broadcast news must apply a framework that fully incorporates and contextualizes the experiences and challenges faced by low-income communities and communities of color. This includes reporting on how environmental justice intersects with people’s everyday lives; connecting environmental consequences to political and corporate policies and practices that lead to inequitable harms; contextualizing the disproportionate impacts of environmental injustice to the systemic inequalities and injustices that shape them; and amplifying the voices of those from frontline communities.

    Adopting this approach to better inform the public could play a pivotal role in shaping public policy responses that ensure local, state, and federal governance develop and implement effective and equitable plans to confront the climate crisis that also value the life and well-being of every person, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the Nexis database for the national morning and evening news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC for segments that mentioned specific environmental pollution impacts, regulations, or health hazards using any of the terms “chemical,” “pollution,” “air pollution,” “particulate matter,” “ozone,” “smog,” “soot,” “asthma,” “fossil fuel,” “oil,” “coal,” “fracking,” “natural gas,” “air quality,” “carbon emission,” “greenhouse,” “water pollution,” “contaminant,” “Superfund,” “environment,” “health hazard,” “drill,” “contamination,” “Environmental Protection Agency,” “EPA,” “climate change,” “global warming,” “climate crisis,” “carbon footprint,” “pollutant,” “toxin,” “toxic,” “hurricane,” “tropical storm,” or “flood” from January 1 through December 31, 2021.

    We reviewed segments, which we defined as instances when environmental impacts, regulations, or health hazards were the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of environmental impacts, regulations, or health hazards. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers discussed environmental impacts, regulations, or health hazards with one another.

    To determine how broadcast news programs told stories about environmental impacts that are overwhelmingly borne by poor and minority communities, we reviewed the identified segments for any mentions of any of the demographic and socio-economic terms “White,” “Black,” “African American,” “American Indian,” “Alaska Native,” “Latino,” “Hispanic,” “Indigenous,” “low income,” “poor,” or “immigrant.”

    To count as an environmental justice segment, it had to connect the environmental impact, regulation, or health hazard to a specific “race, color, national origin, or income,” per the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of environmental justice. We analyzed the identified segments for whether they mentioned that the environmental pollution impact, regulation, or health hazard affected a fixed community or population.