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 2023

Corporate broadcast news coverage of environmental justice suffered a decline in quantity in 2023. This continues a worrying trend, with networks missing crucial opportunities to frame national stories with an environmental justice lens by highlighting how racism, economic exploitation, and environmental degradation disproportionately harm vulnerable communities. While some segments demonstrated improved understanding of environmental justice issues, coverage overall remained inconsistent and sporadic. Corporate broadcast networks must move beyond occasional coverage and make this reporting a consistent priority.

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 on ABC, CBS, and NBC from January 1, 2023, through December 31, 2023. In addition, weeknight editions of PBS NewsHour were reviewed for a comparison point, but they were not included in the full dataset.

  • Key findings

    • From January 1, 2023, through December 31, 2023, corporate broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired 9 segments about environmental impacts, regulations, or health hazards that included a mention of a socially marginalized community. This is a 25% decrease from the 12 segments aired in 2022.
    • CBS aired 4 environmental justice segments, NBC aired 3, and ABC aired 2.
    • PBS NewsHour aired 7 environmental justice segments in 2023, nearly matching the combined total of 9 from corporate broadcast networks.
    • Corporate broadcast news shows also missed key opportunities to apply an environmental justice lens to important stories such as the East Palestine train derailment, the ongoing water crisis in socially marginalized communities, and Indigenous-led activism against polluting industries.
  • In 2023, corporate broadcast news coverage of environmental justice decreased 25% from 2022

  • In 2023, corporate broadcast networks aired just 9 segments about environmental impacts, regulations, or health hazards that mentioned how they would specifically affect socially marginalized communities. This represents a 25% decrease from 2022’s 12 segments, and a continued decline from the 19 environmental justice segments aired in 2021. While individual broadcast news segments on environmental justice often demonstrated improved understanding of the issues, overall coverage remained inconsistent. This lack of consistent attention across numerous important issues highlights missed opportunities.

  • Combined broadcast news environmental justice segments aired 2017-2023
    2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
    19 2 5 4 19 12 9
  • CBS aired 4 environmental justice segments, NBC aired 3, and ABC aired 2.

  • Corporate broadcast news networks' environmental justice segments aired 2017-2023
    Network 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
    ABC 3 0 0 0 2 2 2
    CBS 11 2 4 1 13 5 4
    NBC 5 0 1 3 4 5 3
  • Despite a few strong examples, the coverage remained limited. There was only 1 environmental justice segment about lead contamination, 2 about Louisiana's Cancer Alley, 1 about the relocation of an Indigenous tribe from their land, which is threatened by sea-level rise, 2 about the impacts of the flood insurance market, 2 about water crises, and 1 exploring potential environmental harms from lithium mining.

    However, some standout segments in 2023 showcased the power of environmental justice reporting to illuminate systemic problems.

  • Notable environmental justice segments in 2023

  • The January 10 edition of NBC Nightly News featured a segment about Baltimore's failing water infrastructure and the resulting public distrust. Residents cited recurring issues and rising bills despite officials’ claims that the water was safe.

  • Citation From the January 10, 2023, edition of NBC Nightly News

  • During the March 16 edition of NBC Nightly News, NBC senior investigative correspondent Cynthia McFadden reported on a school located in Louisiana’s predominately Black “Cancer Alley.” The segment focused on the dangerous proximity of Fifth Ward Elementary in Reserve, Louisiana, to a plant emitting toxic pollutants. Despite the EPA’s warning about the risks seven years ago, the school is still open. Resident Mary Hampton called living in Cancer Alley a “death sentence,” emphasizing the racial injustice of the enduring pollution: “They don`t care about us. It`s racial. They don`t care. You all just sit there, inhale and die.”

  • During the June 1 edition of CBS Mornings, Manuel Bojorquez reported on the growing insurance crisis in Florida. The segment highlighted how climate change, industry issues, and state regulations are leaving millions of low-income residents facing a coverage gap, placing them at significant financial risk.

  • Citation From the June 1, 2023, edition of CBS Mornings

  • The November 17 edition of ABC's World News Tonight featured a segment about the lead-contaminated water crisis in Spring Valley, New York, public schools. The segment included a statement from the New York Civil Liberties Union calling the situation, which is plaguing a predominantly minority district, “environmental racism.”

  • Citation From the November 17, 2023, edition of ABC's World News Tonight

  • Broadcast news coverage in 2023 missed opportunities to apply an environmental justice lens to major news stories

  • Corporate broadcast networks in 2023 again failed to apply an environmental justice lens to major national stories, missing opportunities to reveal systemic inequities and historical patterns of neglect. They also neglected some important environmental justice stories almost entirely.

    Below are a few pivotal stories from 2023 that highlight this gap.

    East Palestine train derailment

    In early 2023, the East Palestine, Ohio, community faced a catastrophic train derailment that resulted in a significant chemical release. This incident did not just pose immediate health hazards to residents of the surrounding area; it also raised long-term environmental concerns for this low-wealth, rural community. Despite the gravity of the situation, broadcast news coverage neglected the environmental justice aspects of the story. The potential health and environmental impacts on residents who lack the resources to either relocate or advocate for cleanup measures was an angle that broadcast networks left largely underexplored.

    One year post-derailment, the community's safety continues to be a matter of concern. This incident highlights a broader narrative about environmental injustice, where communities with fewer resources, particularly those in rural settings, face greater risks and challenges in the wake of industrial accidents.

    Water crises

    In 2023, the ongoing water crises across the United States highlighted the system-wide neglect of urban infrastructure and a historical pattern of environmental injustice. These crises, which disproportionately harm low-income communities and communities of color, are a stark reminder of the enduring legacy of environmental racism. The water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, for instance, transitioned from an “acute to chronic” state, illustrating how historic disinvestment and systemic neglect have rendered certain communities particularly vulnerable to infrastructure failures. 

    However, America's failing drinking water system provides an opportunity for journalists to expose how widespread neglect – from decaying pipes to lead contamination – and a pattern of deliberate policy decisions have created intractable infrastructure issues that harm poor communities and communities of color, generation after generation. However, this elicited little interest from corporate broadcast networks.

    Indigenous-led environmental activism

    2023 also saw a continuation of Indigenous-led activism against environmental threats posed by mining projects, pipelines, and oil and gas drilling. Their resistance is not only about protecting the environment, but also about defending Native sovereignty, cultural survival, and the right to a healthy habitat. Indigenous communities — such as those near Oak Flat in Arizona fighting against copper mining or the Gwich’in Nation resisting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — are often on the frontlines of environmental justice. These struggles reveal how environmental damage is inseparable from historical injustice, highlighting the interconnection of land, sovereignty, and cultural survival for Indigenous peoples.

    While corporate broadcast media often missed these connections in 2023, PBS NewsHour’s coverage offered a more nuanced picture.

  • How PBS covered environmental justice in 2023

  • In 2023, PBS NewsHour aired 7 environmental justice segments, falling just two segments short of matching corporate broadcast news networks' total of 9 for the year. While this marks a decrease from the 10 segments aired in 2022, the coverage on NewsHour was often more  in-depth, nuanced, and ambitious in scope than its corporate counterparts.

    NewsHour integrated environmental justice into segments on a variety of topics, including the Biden administration’s approval of the controversial Willow Project, Indigenous rights to the Colorado River, the potential benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act for marginalized communities, and the unique challenges faced by people with disabilities during extreme weather events. 

    This approach highlighted the intersectional nature of environmental justice and its relevance across a wide range of stories. It was particularly evident in a few standout segments.

    For example, the July 18 edition of PBS NewsHour featured a segment about the complex issue of water rights of Indigenous tribes along the Colorado River. The segment highlighted the Gila River Indian Community's success in securing their water allocation, in contrast to the ongoing struggle of the much larger Navajo Nation. Navajo hydrologist Crystal Tulley-Cordova emphasized the challenges facing the community, including a lack of running water for a significant portion of the population.

  • Citation From the July 18, 2023, edition of PBS NewsHour

  • The November 9 edition of NewsHour, featured a segment about the disproportionate impact of climate-fueled disasters on people with disabilities. The segment, part of the program’s “Disability Reframed” series, highlighted how disabled communities are often hit hardest by natural disasters, and explored the challenges they face in accessing support and resources during and after extreme weather events. It was a rare instance of TV news journalism challenging and expanding traditional notions of environmental justice.

  • Video file

    Citation From the November 9, 2023, edition of PBS NewsHour

  • Lessons unlearned

  • The inconsistency of environmental justice coverage has real-world consequences. By occasionally delving into these stories but failing to connect them to broader systemic issues, broadcast news outlets normalize injustice and make solutions harder to achieve. This cannot continue. If outlets refuse to consistently engage with the stories that affect marginalized communities, they risk undermining these communities' ability to inform the public about the systemic nature of these problems, hindering efforts to build a more just and sustainable future. 

    Over the past 2 years, Media Matters has solicited guidance from environmental justice advocates and journalists, like Queen Quet, the first Queen Mother and official spokesperson for the Gullah/Geechee Nation, and Yvette Cabrera of the Center for Public Integrity, among many others. From those conversations, a clear conclusion emerged: corporate broadcast news must significantly improve its coverage of environmental justice by committing to deeper engagement with environmental justice stories, integrating the perspectives of marginalized communities directly impacted by environmental harms, and moving beyond surface-level reporting to uncover the systemic roots of environmental injustices and the broader socio-political and economic contexts in which they occur.

  • 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, 2023, through December 31, 2023.

    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.