How broadcast TV news covered environmental justice in 2023
Media Matters / Andrea Austria

Research/Study Research/Study

How broadcast TV news covered environmental justice in 2022

Corporate broadcast TV news coverage of environmental justice dipped in both quality and quantity in 2022 compared to 2021. And like in previous years, last year’s coverage missed multiple opportunities to apply an environmental justice lens to key national stories that demanded more context about the complex harms that racism, economic exploitation, and environmental injustice have on vulnerable communities. Even the segments told through an environmental justice framework often failed to demand accountability for the public officials and industries responsible for environmental degradation or highlight 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 — as well as 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, 2022. In addition, weeknight episodes of PBS NewsHour were reviewed for a comparison point, but they were not included in the full dataset. This year’s study also includes the perspectives of journalists whose work either intersects with or focuses on environmental justice to learn how national TV news can develop and apply an environmental justice framework that consistently recognizes and contextualizes the experiences and challenges faced by low-income communities and communities of color.

  • Key findings

    • From January 1 through December 31, 2022, corporate broadcast news shows — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 12 segments about environmental impacts, regulations, or health hazards that included a mention of a socially marginalized community.
    • NBC and CBS tied for the most environmental justice segments (5), followed by ABC (2).
    • PBS NewsHour aired 10 environmental justice segments, however, these are not included in the full data set as PBS is publicly funded and the format of the program is different than that of its corporate counterparts. Weeknight episodes of the show were analyzed for a comparison point with other broadcast news shows.
    • The strongest environmental justice segments were stories about the adverse health effects of environmental pollution on marginalized communities.
  • Corporate broadcast news shows only aired 12 environmental justice segments in 2022, which is a substantial decrease from 2021

  • Corporate broadcast news shows aired 12 environmental justice segments in 2022. CBS and NBC tied for the most segments with 5 each, followed by ABC with 2.

  • Corporate broadcast news environmental justice segments from 2017 to 2022
    Network 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
    ABC 3 0 0 0 2 2
    CBS 11 2 4 1 13 5
    NBC 5 0 1 3 4 5
  • This is a decrease from 2021, which saw a marked increase in the quantity and quality of environmental justice segments when broadcast networks aired 19 such segments combined.

  • Combined broadcast news environmental justice segments aired from 2017 to 2022
    2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
    19 2 5 4 19 12
  • There were also fewer high-quality environmental justice segments on corporate broadcast TV news in 2022 than in 2021. Most environmental justice segments (8) were about the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi. However, most of these segments were brief demographic mentions that failed to contextualize the systemic ills that have plagued Black and poor residents of Jackson for decades, failed to connect the water infrastructure issues facing Jackson with similar challenges faced by communities of color across the country, and failed to demand accountability on their behalf.

  • 2022’s stronger environmental justice segments focused on the health impacts of pollution

  • Despite the decrease in quantity and quality, broadcast networks in 2022 aired a few strong segments about how pollution harms the health of communities of color. 

    The February 10, 2022, episode of ABC’s GMA3 hosted Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Ras Baraka to discuss the city’s efforts to replace nearly 23,000 lead-contaminated water lines within three years.

  • Citation From the February 10, 2022, episode of ABC's Good Morning America

  • CBS Mornings aired a strong environmental justice segment on February 22, 2022, about a multi-billion dollar highway extension in Houston, Texas, that will dislocate thousands of residents, many of them Black and Hispanic. Notably, the segment discussed how similar infrastructure projects disproportionately harm communities of color across the country.

  • Citation From the February 23, 2022, episode of CBS Mornings

  • The December 22, 2022, episode of NBC Nightly News aired a segment about the Jackson water crisis that discussed an Environmental Protection Agency investigation of the state of Mississippi for potential violations of the Civil Rights Act stemming from Gov. Tate Reeves potentially redirecting resources to improve the water infrastructure from Jackson to smaller, white communities. The segment also featured EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who observed, “We know Black, brown, tribal communities, low-income communities have seen a lack of investment, but also are on the front lines of the impacts of these lack of investments and climate change.”

  • Citation From the December 22, 2022, episode of NBC Nightly News

  • Broadcast news coverage in 2022 missed opportunities to apply an environmental justice lens to major national news stories

  • In what has been a yearly trend, national news shows missed opportunities to apply an environmental justice lens to several major national news stories. In many instances, PBS NewsHour covered issues that broadcast TV news shows largely ignored.

    Supreme Court’s West Virginia v. EPA ruling

    The Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA, announced on June 30, 2022, severely curtailed the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. Broadcast news shows aired only a few segments about the ruling and even those missed an opportunity to report on it through an environmental justice frame. TV news reporting ignored the harm the fossil fuel industry causes to the air, land, and water of marginalized communities, omitted how the fossil fuel industry influenced the ruling, and overlooked the decision’s negative effect on the EPA’s ability to mitigate environmental injustice.

    However, during the July 5, 2022, episode of PBS NewsHour, former EPA senior adviser for environmental justice and community revitalization Mustafa Santiago Ali discussed the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s ruling for vulnerable communities.

  • Citation From the July 5, 2022, episode of PBS NewsHour

  • Biden administration environmental justice actions

    The Biden administration sought to expand on its commitments to core environmental justice issues in 2022. 

    The Inflation Reduction Act, which was announced on July 27 and signed into law by President Joe Biden on August 16, 2022, allocated an historic $369 billion in climate and energy provisions. Some of the key provisions included expanding access to clean energy, as well as providing funding to low-income families for home energy efficiency upgrades and tax credits for electric vehicles. However, the package also drew criticism for allowing the ongoing development of fossil fuel infrastructure and shortchanging low-income communities and communities of color

    In 2022, Biden’s EPA also created a new national office designed “to better advance environmental justice, enforce civil rights laws in overburdened communities, and deliver new grants and technical assistance,” including overseeing the dispersal of a $3 billion block grant program for climate and environmental justice that was part of the Inflation Reduction Act.

    The Biden administration’s efforts represent a sea change in how presidential administrations discuss environmental justice issues, but they have largely failed to receive substantive coverage. Corporate broadcast networks’ also failed to cover the IRA’s climate provisions, choosing to frame the historic legislation almost exclusively through a political lens. 

    Industrial explosions, leaks, and spills

    Every year, broadcast news shows air multiple segments about industrial accidents that routinely occur across the country. These stories ran the gamut from train derailments to oil refinery explosions to chemical plant fires and contamination.

    Most of these segments are news briefs about a particular incident, and rarely do they contextualize the disproportionate impact these explosions, leaks, and spills have on low-income communities and communities of color. Not only do “more than 25 million people live within a mile of a crude-by-rail route,” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, but a study produced by the organizations Coming Clean, The Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, and the Campaign for Healthier Solutions also found:

  • People living nearest to these high-risk chemical facilities (known as the fenceline areas or zones), and the businesses, schools, and hospitals in these areas, are especially at risk from disasters. They are at greatest risk of immediate death or injury, are likely to be exposed to the highest level of toxic chemicals released, and have the least amount of time to evacuate or otherwise protect themselves.

  • These disasters are often presented as rote, inevitable facts of life when evidence suggests they don’t have to be. One notable exception is the June 8, 2022, episode of PBS NewsHour, which examined how the area around the Port of San Diego has become a hub of industrial pollution that is harming the health of the surrounding community.

  • Citation From the June 8, 2022, episode of PBS NewsHour

  • Jackson water crisis

    Broadcast news shows aired 8 segments about the Jackson water crisis that noted it is a majority Black city or has a poverty rate of 25%. However, these segments rarely told the deeper story about how the city’s legacy of racial and economic injustice has contributed to its ongoing water infrastructure problems.

    The most recent crisis began after a boil-water notice was issued on July 30, 2022, because the city’s drinking water was potentially contaminated. In late August, Jackson took another blow to its water infrastructure after torrential rains caused the Pearl River to flood. Not only did the flooding temporarily displace residents, it also contributed to a complete system failure at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, making the water supply for 180,000 Jackson residents “entirely unsafe to drink” indefinitely. 

    Like coverage of the Benton Harbor water crisis in 2021, coverage of Jackson’s water crisis highlighted the limits of broadcast news’ understanding of environmental justice. Brief demographic mentions devoid of substantive context can hide the true scale of environmental injustices by siloing them away from the public’s broader understanding of how deliberate public policy decisions result in material harm to socially marginalized people every day. Siloing the water crises in Jackson, Benton Harbor, Newark, and Flint, among many others, also obscures the breadth and depth of the problems facing vulnerable communities across the country. 

    Although these connections are rarely made on corporate broadcast news shows, Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice, articulated them during the September 12, 2022, episode of PBS NewsHour.

  • Citation From the September 12, 2022, episode of PBS NewsHour

  • In their own words: Journalists share how national TV news can improve its environmental justice reporting

  • In order to bring relevant, substantively reported environmental justice stories to their audiences, national TV news must understand how environmental justice intersects with multiple different issue areas, connect the dots between what’s driving environmental injustice in different parts of the country, and demand accountability on behalf of marginalized communities. To that end, we’ve included the perspectives of journalists whose work either focuses on or intersects with environmental justice issues to learn how their experiences can help national TV news outlets expand their understanding of what constitutes an environmental justice story and develop a reporting framework to tell it.

    Media Matters reached out to Yvette Cabrera, Amber X. Chen, Charles Ellison, and Yessenia Funes for their perspectives on how corporate broadcast news can improve its environmental justice coverage. Although they each have unique approaches to how their work intersects with environmental justice, they are united by a commitment to telling the stories of people who are too often ignored by corporate news media outlets.

    Why is corporate broadcast news failing to produce substantive environmental justice stories?

    Yvette Cabrera is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity and wrote a seminal series for ThinkProgress in 2017 about the myriad ways lead exposure harms children, including the lead-to-prison pipeline — a story that lies at the intersection of environmental injustice, public health, and crime. For more than two decades, her work has focused on Latino populations and is informed by her keen understanding of the connections between so many seemingly disparate issues.

    During our discussion about why broadcast TV news coverage of environmental justice too often lacks necessary context, Cabrera noted that print and online news outlets produce more substantive environmental justice stories because the nature of the television format lends itself to “responding to what’s immediate and in front of you,” while disincentivizing follow-up reporting. Referencing the recent East Palestine train derailment, she continued:

  • I think unfortunately what happens with television is they respond to the immediate disaster. A lot of people are currently focusing on the train derailment, which obviously causes problems in the first place when it goes off the tracks and a car is exploded. But I don't see as much questioning around why these chemicals are being transported? What are they used for? What is the need? There are communities that are put in danger every day, across the country, because of the transportation of these chemicals. Do we really need those? Which then leads you to the question, “Where are these chemicals being produced?” They're often produced in black and brown communities. We see that in Cancer Alley, in the Gulf region. Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi are often the hardest hit, and these communities have been saying, “We are being polluted on a daily basis.” But their stories don’t receive the same amount of attention.

  • Amber X. Chen is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by Atmos, The Guardian, and Teen Vogue, among other outlets. Her unique approach to stories about psychedelics and climate activism, community organizers in Texas borderland communities, and Hawaii’s worsening water crisis demonstrate an expansive understanding of how environmental justice intersects with so many other issues, as well as the benefits of understanding a movement before reporting on it. In fact, before becoming a journalist, Chen was an activist involved in movement building and sees her journalism as an extension of that work. “Every environmental story is an environmental justice story,” she told Media Matters.

    Her experience in environmental organizing informed her understanding of how corporate TV news shows ignore the voices of marginalized communities because it’s something she has observed in the larger environmental movement.

  • I was always in rooms with a lot of older, white people. And I was able to witness that the solutions they were coming up with weren't good because they ignored that people of color and low-income people are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. And they were also being disproportionately left out of climate solutions. And so you have people sitting at the decision-making table and proposing incredibly inequitable climate solutions who are very focused on solving whatever is most immediate to them, unaware that these solutions could potentially harm communities of color.

  • Charles Ellison is the executive producer and host of Reality Check, a daily public affairs program on WURD, which is based in Philadelphia and is one of three African American-owned and -operated talk radio stations in the country. He is also founder and managing editor of, an environmental and climate justice journalism initiative. Ellison’s journey toward environmental and climate journalism began with bearing witness to environmental impacts, such as cancer clusters, harming residents in Philadelphia’s mostly Black neighborhoods, and he has turned his journalism into a vehicle for change, being named an Emerson Collective fellow because of his work. 

    When Media Matters asked Ellison why he was able to produce quality environmental journalism when corporate broadcast news, with all of its resources, does not, he noted:

  • We have a lot more latitude and flexibility to produce our stories, as opposed to having to package them into soundbites like broadcast and cable news. Plus: we’re accountable to the community, not company interests or advertisers. That's a major flaw in the corporate media industrial complex. It’s this constant pressure to package things in such a way that they're captured within multi-second sound bites or focus on what's the most salacious or dramatic. They’re also under pressure to not report on how climate change and environmental harms are hurting nonwhite communities. WURD is a non-partisan news organization, and we aren't aligned with any specific interest group. That allows us to tell the stories we want to because we’re independent and don’t rely on well-funded lobbying groups who work on behalf of polluting industries.

  • An environmental journalist who focuses on the intersection of race and environment, Yessenia Funes went to college wanting to produce impactful journalism when the personal toll of Hurricane Sandy informed her professional understanding of the myriad ways climate and environmental justice intersect with our lives. In the years since, she has produced impactful reporting about how environmental exposures are killing migrants in the Arizona desert, how increasingly worse heat waves are killing asylum-seekers trying to cross the border, how the Bolsonaro government in Brazil encouraged and ignored the murder of gay land defender Fernando dos Santos because of his environmental activism and his sexuality, and why climate activists should incorporate the elderly into their understanding of vulnerable populations at risk from extreme weather.

    When asked about why online and print news reporters are able to produce deep and substantive environmental stories about vulnerable communities — as contrasted with the dearth of good environmental justice journalism on corporate TV news — Funes replied, “There are big dollars attached to broadcast news. And so I do think that’s a big part of it, right?” 

    She continued:

  • Profit is the ultimate decider here, right? You want to have views, you want to have your high ratings, you want to keep the people in charge happy by not pushing their buttons with stories they may not like. I think that's a big part of it. At Atmos, we're really lucky that we’re independently funded through our publisher. And so the only people that we need to really please are ourselves. Having our own goals and metrics may encourage us to do more climate and environmental reporting. But with broadcast outlets, I don’t imagine that's a part of their infrastructure. It's more important to keep the investors or owners or CEOs happy. And, unfortunately, climate has become such a hot button topic in politics that, depending on how you cover it, viewers can have really extreme responses to it. They can be really unhappy, or they can also be really appreciative. And I think that creates a little bit more of an unwillingness or hesitance to talk about climate or environmental justice because it's become so politicized.

  • How can corporate broadcast news improve its environmental justice journalism?

    National TV news shows must overcome multiple challenges to develop a deep understanding of how environmental justice impacts the lives of their viewers, and apply this journalistic framework consistently to a broad range of relevant issues and stories. The journalists who spoke to Media Matters provided some further insights about how those outlets can improve their coverage of environmental justice.

    Cabrera suggested that there are a wealth of stories that television journalists can tell if they are willing to keep reporting once the urgency of the breaking news story has subsided. Again referencing the East Palestine train derailment, she continued:

  • There are just a lot of disparities that can be highlighted as stories. It just takes going beyond the initial breaking news story to explain the environmental impacts from decisions that lead to the production of these types of chemicals and allowing these factories to exist in vulnerable communities. There are consequences that go beyond just the initial explosion. It speaks to decades of decisions that allow these chemicals in our environment, decisions that have led to the pollution of our communities. There's a wealth of stories for television journalists to tap into.

  • Chen noted the need for national TV news outlets to examine “every dimension of a story” to understand if there is a justice approach. She also suggested the need to hire more journalists of color and build trust with the communities they are reporting on.

  • I think corporate news channels have a very institutional air about them. So I definitely think they should hire more reporters of color, as they are likely to be aware of and want to report on environmental justice issues. And if television journalists want to understand a community and the issues it faces, to build that trust, they should go back to the roots of what journalism's supposed to be. Go into the community, knock on doors, talk to organizers. I really think corporate TV news is sort of skimming around the work that needs to be done. It's difficult, but it can and should be done.

  • Ellison also highlighted the exclusion of Black, brown, and Indigenous voices from national TV news stories about the environment and why nonwhite media outlets need to fill in the gaps.

  • Having someone willing and able to talk to Black people or other marginalized people where they live, you can have conversations that ask them, “Hey, what are you dealing with in your neighborhood? It seems like half the people in the neighborhood have asthma. Well let me tell you about all the methane that's polluting the city. Let me tell you how bad air pollution is in the city.” And you'll start seeing those audiences become more receptive. “Wait a second, I didn't know that. Tell me more.” Instead, we have the corporate mainstream media complex that wants to ignore marginalized voices and exclude them from environmental and climate discussions. We definitely want to get people of color, climate activists on mainstream corporate broadcasts. But we also need to hear them on Black media. They need to be on those shows, too, bringing the same messages.

  • Although Funes understands the orthodoxy of objectivity that journalism schools seek to instill in students, she encourages journalists to allow their instincts to guide their storytelling, especially with the stakes so high. She noted:

  • My approach is to consider what is upsetting me? What is exciting to me? What's something that’s sort of riling me up? What's riling up my sources? I don't really think about what story is going to do well. That's not really what I'm worried about. I'm worried about what is feeling urgent, what feels wrong, what are my sources compelling me to cover. What's not being covered? What are people missing? What are people getting wrong? That's really what drives my reporting. And I think that it's hard with broadcast news because you're really trying to sell something in a way. But I do think there's a responsibility that we as journalists have to inform the public about issues, about what's right and what's wrong. And I just think that's a really basic tenant of journalism that has gotten quite lost, especially with social media and the politicization of climate change. I think we've lost sight of what's at stake here.

  • Many of the challenges and opportunities for improvement expressed by these journalists were echoed by a member of the national media who spoke to Media Matters on background. When asked about the specific challenges faced by national TV news reporters who want to report on environmental justice stories, they said that it is primarily an “information barrier” driven by a lack of diverse voices in the newsroom. They also noted, “The environment is harder to cover because the newsworthy events happen over time, as opposed to coverage of big events like storms or big industrial disasters. As such, coverage of these stories comes down to being aware of what’s happening in communities of color.”

    They continued:

  • Climate change and environmental justice are hard subjects to get people to pay attention to because they feel too big for the average viewer. It’s hard to get people interested unless it's a disaster, which is what drives corporate media coverage of that story. But it’s the media’s job to inform people “before the dam breaks.” A journalist’s job isn’t to fix problems, but they are supposed to inform people when something is wrong. But many people in media are not aware of the long-standing problems facing many vulnerable communities because they are in a bubble.

  • National TV news would do well to listen to the critiques of print and online climate and environmental reporters, adopt some of their approaches, and amplify their work. This includes developing and implementing a reporting framework that incorporates the experiences and challenges faced by vulnerable communities; understands how environmental justice intersects with people’s everyday lives; connects environmental harms to political and corporate policies and practices; and demands accountability for decisions that degrade the air, land, and water of fenceline communities.

    If national TV news outlets committed to better informing the public about the environmental injustice that harms vulnerable communities every day, their reporting could play a pivotal role in shaping public policy responses, ensuring that local, state, and federal officials implement effective and equitable plans to confront environmental harms, and improving the life and well-being of every person — especially the most vulnerable.

    To view and share the work of journalists of color who report on the environment, please visit The Uproot Project.

  • 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,” “flood,” or “environmental justice” from January 1 through December 31, 2022.

    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.