Ceci Freed / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

How broadcast TV news covered environmental justice over the past four years

Corporate broadcast news shows failed to consistently contextualize how environmental impacts, regulations, and health hazards disproportionately harm socially marginalized communities

Even though environmental pollution affects everyone, low-income communities and communities of color are often disproportionately harmed by poor air, water, and soil caused by fossil fuel pollution and chemical contamination. This is no accident: The industries causing the bulk of this pollution lobby vociferously to weaken environmental regulations at the local, state, and federal level, while seeking to avoid accountability for the harm that results from lax standards and choosing to site their physical infrastructure near vulnerable communities.

Media Matters analyzed broadcast news coverage of any environmental pollution impacts to the air, water, and soil -- particularly as caused by fossil fuel and chemical industries -- regulatory actions that would affect specific communities or demographic groups, and environmental health hazards that pose risks to specific demographic groups or communities from January 2017 through December 2020. For the purposes of this study, we counted mentions of a socially marginalized population as an environmental justice segment.

Our study found 11.4%, or 30 of 264, corporate broadcast morning and evening news segments included a mention of how these environmental pollution impacts, regulations, or health hazards specifically affected a particular demographic group. But rarely did these environmental justice segments contextualize the disproportionate harm environmental injustice has on socially marginalized communities due to systemic inequalities and injustices. In short, environmental pollution impacts were reported, but injustices were not.

Media Matters analyzed the morning and evening news programs for ABC, CBS, and NBC from January 1, 2017, through December 31, 2020. In addition, weeknight episodes of PBS NewsHour were reviewed for a comparison point, but they were not included in the full dataset.

  • Key Findings

    • From January 1, 2017, to December 31, 2020, corporate broadcast morning and evening news shows — on ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 264 segments about environmental pollution impacts, regulations, or health hazards and 30 segments, or 11.4% of them, mentioned their effects on socially marginalized communities.
    • CBS aired the highest number of segments (18) followed by NBC (9), and ABC (3). CBS also aired the highest percentage of environmental justice segments (14.4%), followed by NBC (13.6%), and ABC (4.2%).
    • The majority of environmental justice segments (63%) aired in 2017. ABC aired 100% of its environmental justice segments in 2017, followed by CBS (61%), and NBC (56%).
    • The most common segment topics that connected environmental pollution impacts to socially marginalized communities were Indigenous communities’ and environmental activists’ opposition to proposed fossil fuel infrastructure and regulatory rollbacks (16), health hazards such as water pollution and lead contamination (11), and struggling fossil fuel industry workers (3).
    • The demographic groups that received the most environmental justice coverage were American Indian or Alaska Native (14 segments), followed by poor/low income (8), Black or African American (4), and Hispanic/Latino (1). There were three segments that mentioned multiple demographics.
    • Topics such as industrial accidents and Superfund sites, disaster recovery, and COVID-19 were rarely reported through an environmental justice lens.
  • Corporate broadcast news rarely covered environmental impacts, regulations, or health hazards through an environmental justice lens

  • From January 2017 to December 2020, only 30 of 264 (11.4%) corporate broadcast segments -- on ABC, CBS, and NBC -- about environmental pollution impacts, regulations, or health hazards contextualized their effects on socially marginalized communities. CBS aired the highest number of segments (18) followed by NBC (9), and ABC (3), CBS also aired the highest percentage of environmental justice segments (14.4%), followed by NBC (13.6%), and ABC (4.2%).

  • Only 11% of broadcast news segments about environmental justice mentioned their effect on socially marginalized communities
    Network Total environmental pollution segments Mentioned effects on socially marginalized communities Percentage
    ABC 72 3 4.2%
    CBS 125 18 14.4%
    NBC 66 9 13.6%
      264 30 11.4%
  • The most common environmental justice segment topics were about Indigenous communities' and environmental activists’ opposition to proposed fossil fuel infrastructure and regulatory rollbacks (16), health hazards such as water pollution and lead contamination (11), and struggling fossil fuel industry workers (3).

  • env-justice-topics.png
  • The majority of environmental justice segments, 63%, or 19 out of 30 aired in 2017, coinciding with the heavy emphasis on the Trump administration’s decision to allow the development of fossil fuel infrastructure, such as the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines on Indigenous lands, as well as the administration’s decision to drastically shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. 

    In 2018, broadcast networks aired two environmental justice segments, five in 2019, and four in 2020. The dearth of segments since 2017 was not due to a lack of potential environmental justice stories; there were plenty of opportunities to apply an environmental justice lens to myriad stories about disaster recovery, industrial accidents and contamination, and the Trump administration’s aggressive regulatory rollbacks.

  • Broadcast news environmental justice segments from 2017 to 2020
    Network 2017 2018 2019 2020
    ABC 3 0 0 0
    CBS 11 2 4 1
    NBC 5 0 1 3
      19 2 5 4
  • But it just wasn’t the lack of quantity; the environmental justice stories that broadcast news did air were often shallow and decontextualized.

  • Broadcast news’ environmental justice coverage often lacked depth and substance

  • Even the segments that applied an environmental justice lens to a particular story often barely skimmed the surface to contextualize how America’s history of racial and economic injustice has forced low-income communities and communities of color to bear the burden of polluted air, water, and land, as well as the resulting disproportionately harmful health outcomes

    For example, most of the 16 segments about Indigenous communities and environmental activists’ opposition to the development of fossil fuel infrastructure on Indigenous lands only briefly discussed the potential environmental harm the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines would have on the water and soil. And, in the wake of the Trump administration's decision to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, few segments detailed the long-term harm mining has on surrounding communities

    The few segments that detailed the economic plight of workers in extractive industries such as coal mining did a good job detailing the effects the decrease in coal demand had on communities and families. But these segments never introduced the idea of Just Transition, a “vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.” The larger systemic forces driving down the standard of living of coal communities and the ideas to help these communities transition to a green economy went largely unexamined.

    By far, the strongest environmental justice segments were stories about the adverse health effects of environmental pollution on marginalized communities. This includes water pollution, air pollution, and exposure to toxic and hazardous substances. The scale of human exposure to environmental health hazards is nearly unimaginable; in 2018, more than 100 million Americans lived with poor air quality for more than 100 days, millions of people are still exposed to lead via their water supplies, and approximately 9 million people live near a hazardous waste site. Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to these health hazards.

    Despite their failure to adequately capture the scale of the environmental health hazards facing people across the country, particularly among socially marginalized communities, broadcast news shows did air a few high-quality segments that provided a glimpse of what a sustained commitment to contextualizing environmental justice would look like. We highlight a few of those below.

  • Notable environmental justice segments

  • Although the vast majority of corporate broadcast environmental segments failed to contextualize the historic and systemic inequities that lead to disparate outcomes for vulnerable populations, Media Matters’ review did find some reporting that demonstrated what a robust commitment to sustained and substantive environmental justice journalism could look like. 

    For example, the June 28, 2017, episode of CBS Evening News featured a segment about a Harvard study that found “long-term exposure to airborne fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone increases the risk of premature death, even when that exposure is at levels below the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) currently established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.” The segment also noted that Atlanta, a majority-Black city, had some of the worst air quality in the country.

    In addition to detailing the study’s findings, the segment also featured the mother of a small child who was diagnosed with severe asthma and gave her an opportunity to discuss how the poor air quality harms the child’s health.

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 28, 2017, episode of CBS Evening News

  • CBS Evening News aired another strong environmental justice segment during its September 18, 2017, episode that focused on how a battery plant in Los Angeles was contaminating a predominantly Latino community with lead and other toxic materials. 

    The segment detailed that lead contamination can cause brain damage and stunt the growth of children and highlighted the lack of accountability of polluting industries. It also featured a local public official questioning the lack of urgency from state and federal agencies tasked with oversight and lamenting the “disregard for the community.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the September 18, 2017, episode of CBS Evening News

  • The September 7, 2020, episode of NBC Nightly News featured a strong segment about Black and Latino Americans being twice as likely as whites to die from asthma caused by industrial and transportation pollution. The segment, which focused on communities in Newark, New Jersey, detailed the daily pollution the residents are exposed to, from airplanes to trash incinerators to the nearly nonstop stream of cargo trucks entering and leaving the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

    The segment also featured people living with the disproportionate health consequences of the surrounding industrial pollution and, notably, included an interview with an environmental justice organizer, Kim Gaddy, who summarized the disparities faced by Newark residents by plainly noting, “This is definitely environmental racism that is existing in this community.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the September 7, 2020, episode of NBC Nightly News

  • Other notable environmental justice segments included a July 18, 2017, Today show segment about how a likely carcinogenic chemical -- named 1,2,3-TCP -- has polluted the water supply in Arvin, California; a September 21, 2017, CBS This Morning segment about a study that found a 58% increase in fetal death rates in the wake of the Flint water crisis; and a July 24, 2019, CBS Evening News segment about a chemical plant in Louisiana’s notorious Cancer Alley that may be spiking cancer rates in the surrounding communities.

    These strong segments were anomalies. Far more common were missed opportunities to apply an environmental justice lens to relevant topics.

  • Broadcast news coverage was rife with missed opportunities to cover environmental injustices

  • In Media Matters’ review of four years of broadcast networks’ environmental coverage, we found repeated instances of reporting on disaster recovery, industrial accidents and Superfund sites that left out key details about who was being harmed and why. 

    Despite relevant and compelling news hooks, broadcast news shows rarely applied an environmental justice lens to these stories to inform their viewers about the social, political, and economic factors that make socially marginalized communities less healthy, safe, and sustainable.

    Disaster recovery

    Broadcast news shows heavily covered extreme weather events such as hurricanes, and the data shows they rarely mentioned the specific risks to marginalized communities. This failure to apply a climate justice lens to these stories also extends to environmental justice. Corporate broadcast news failed to cover the socioeconomic realities that make low-income and minority communities less able to afford the economic costs of evacuating, rebuilding, or relocating. These inequities are often compounded by discriminatory practices in receiving federal aid.

    For example, broadcast news shows aired multiple segments about people who lack flood insurance, with the bulk of these segments airing in the wake of hurricanes Harvey in 2017 and Florence in 2018. While these segments touched on the difficulty some people had recovering after a natural disaster, they failed to contextualize why low-income and minority communities are more likely to live in flood-prone areas and find it more difficult to obtain disaster assistance, especially as federal flood insurance becomes more cost prohibitive.

    Industrial accidents & Superfund sites

    Broadcast news shows aired dozens of segments about industrial accidents that occurred across the country in the past four years. These stories ran the gamut from a collapsed tunnel the Hanford Nuclear Reservation to oil refinery explosions to chemical plant fires and contamination.  

    Most of these segments were news briefs about a particular incident, and none of these segments contextualized the disproportionate impact these explosions, leaks, and spills have on low-income communities and communities of color. According to a study produced by Coming Clean, The Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, and The Campaign for Healthier Solutions, Blacks, Latinos, and low-income earners live near hazardous facilities at disproportionate rates. The study 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.

  • Nearly 40% of people in the United States, 124 million, live within three miles of a hazardous facility. The risks of living near these fencelines are well-documented, and there are many groups dedicated to improving the safety of these facilities. But neither the scale of the dangers, nor the detailed solutions to address them, were discussed during stories about these accidents. These human-made disasters are presented as rote, inevitable facts of life when evidence suggests they don’t have to be.  

    Broadcast news shows also aired a few stories about Superfund sites including segments about sites that flooded during hurricanes Harvey and Maria. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, the Superfund ostensibly “allows EPA to clean up contaminated sites. It also forces the parties responsible for the contamination to either perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanup work.” However, with more than 1,500 hazardous waste sites, and an empty trust fund, the EPA’s efforts to clean up Superfund sites have effectively ground to a halt.

    Notably, according to a report produced by EarthJustice, “70% of hazardous waste sites officially listed on the National Priorities List (NPL) under the [Superfund] … are located within one mile of federally assisted housing.” The report also noted:

  • The communities that live in federally assisted housing are predominately comprised of the people most vulnerable to exposure: children, people with disabilities, older adults, and are people of color.

  • None of the segments about various Superfund cleanup efforts included context about the low-income and communities of color being at greatest risk from living near these hazardous waste sites.

    COVID-19 pandemic

    Even as evidence became available that air pollution played a role in worse health outcomes from COVID-19, corporate broadcast news shows didn’t connect how the “pollution burden” borne by communities of color could be driving disproportionate death rates from COVID-19. As a result, broadcast news viewers never learned that the virus’s disproportionately harmful impact on communities of color across the country was an entirely foreseeable consequence of the United States’ history of environmental racism.

    Public health experts and environmental justice advocates were warning in March 2020 that systemic inequities could exacerbate COVID-19’s harm to Black and Latino communities. But missing from the early coverage of disproportionate minority deaths were discussions about how air pollution worsens COVID-19 outcomes and the Trump administration’s assault on environmental protections could make communities of color more vulnerable to the virus.

    Broadcast networks failed to make the connection between air quality and COVID-19 mortality even after scientists began identifying a probable link between air pollution and worse COVID-19 outcomes throughout March and early April 2020, and a Harvard study published on April 5 found that people who lived in areas with high levels of fine-particulate pollution were 15% more likely to die from COVID-19. Since then, a study published in April 2021 by the medical journal Respiratory Medicine found that “a one-unit increase in particulate matter 2.5 was associated with a 60% higher chance of hospitalization for COVID-19 patients with pre-existing respiratory disease.”

    Despite abundant research showing that socially marginalized communities bear the burden of corporate fossil-fuel pollution, which increases health risks from comorbidities such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease, broadcast news outlets missed the opportunity to report on the intersection of environmental justice and COVID-19.

  • How PBS applied an environmental justice lens to certain prominent stories

  • In addition to analyzing broadcast morning and evening news coverage, Media Matters also reviewed a sample of PBS Newshour’s environmental justice segments for comparison. Our review of PBS segments focused on the recurring environmental justice topics covered by broadcast news, as well as missed opportunities. In many instances, PBS Newshour reported on these stories with depth and substance rarely replicated on broadcast news programs.

    For example, the March 1, 2017, episode of PBS Newshour included a segment about Indigenous communities’ opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, while also detailing the history of federal incursion on Indigenous lands and the environmental threats posed by pipelines.

  • Citation From the March 1, 2017, episode of PBS Newshour

  • PBS aired a segment on September 1, 2017, that focused on the unique challenges Hurricane Harvey posed to undocumented families in Texas trying to recover from the storm, which included fear of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the inability to qualify for disaster aid.

  • Citation From the September 1, 2017, episode of PBS Newshour

  • The September 12, 2017, episode of PBS Newshour featured a segment about coal miners in Appalachia confronted with the harsh economic realities of a declining industry. Notably, the segment also focused on the efforts of some nonprofit groups to help unemployed workers find sustainable jobs.

  • Citation From the September 12, 2018, episode of PBS Newshour

  • PBS NewsHour aired a story on September 17, 2018, about how hard it was for the poor, Black residents of a housing project in New Bern, North Carolina, to recover after the devastation of Hurricane Florence. The segment described their struggles before the storm and how natural disasters made their struggles that much harder.

  • Citation From the September 17, 2018, episode of PBS Newshour

  • The disproportionate harm air pollution has on low-income communities and communities of color was discussed during the January 31, 2018, episode of PBS Newshour during a nearly 10-minute segment about efforts to decrease diesel pollution in Oregon.

  • Citation From the January 31, 2018, episode of PBS Newshour

  • PBS Newshour aired a segment on August 20, 2020, that examined the Flint, Michigan, water crisis six years after it first made national news. Notably, it included interviews with residents who were still struggling to source clean water and with local pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, one of the first people to sound the alarm about residents’ lead levels, who discussed the current and historic inequities driving the crisis.

  • Citation From the August 20, 2020, episode of PBS Newshour

  • A brief history of the environmental justice movement

  • The environmental justice movement was born in 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina, when residents united in protesting the illegal dumping of a class of toxic chemicals called PCBs in their community. The anger and dedication of the protesters was driven by the recognition that systemically racist public policies, as evidenced in housing discrimination, labeled Black and Latino communities as undesirable for living, but suitable for polluting.

    The Warren County protests drew the attention of the nation to an issue too often ignored among white environmentalists who tended to focus on issues around conservation and nature; “In poor, racially segregated communities across the country, people had been quietly fighting pollution from rail yards, coal-fired power plants, sewage treatment facilities, oil and gas refineries, and concrete batch mills. They saw their own stories playing out in Warren County,” noted a recent Washington Post story about the environmental justice movement.

    As the movement grew, it drew on research produced by two pioneering academics and activists who are integrally involved in the environmental justice movement to this day. In the mid-1970s, Dr. Robert Bullard began researching landfill placement in Houston and discovered that all the approved landfill sites were in Black neighborhoods. Throughout the 1980s he expanded his research and found that there was a pattern of hazardous sites being placed in predominantly Black communities throughout the United States. 

    Dr. Beverly Wright collaborated with Bullard in the 1980s to produce a study on Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” an area lined with chemical and oil factories where residents are more than 50 times as likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the average American. Since then, she has worked around the country to identify polluted communities and help them fight environmentally racist policies that harm their health and safety.

    Backed by early victories such as Warren County, and a growing body of research illustrating the pervasiveness of environmental racism, early environmental justice leaders sought accountability and support from the wider environmental movement. In early 1990, leaders of the nascent environmental justice movement sent a letter to the National Wildlife Federation affirming their belief that “through dialogue and mutual strategizing we can create a global environmental movement that protects us all.” 

    Since then, while the “Big Green” environmental groups have endeavored to embrace environmental justice, deep disparities in funding and inclusion persist within these legacy organizations. But grassroots environmental justice activists and organizations are not waiting around for the legacy environmental groups to save them; groups from across the country remain active in their local communities, as well as the national discourse. And the National Black Environmental Justice Network, which at its height represented “nearly 300 Black grassroots, environmental and economic justice activists,” was relaunched in 2020 to address many of the same systemic ills it fought more than 20 years ago. 

    To learn more about the environmental justice movement and the work of two of its early founders, you can watch the videos below:

  • Ways corporate TV news can increase and improve its environmental justice reporting

  • Broadcast TV must begin reporting on how environmental impacts and regulations specifically affect socially marginalized communities including how and why they are at greater risk. Environmental justice became a key campaign issue during the 2020 election and a priority for the Biden administration. As such, broadcast news shows’ coverage of environmental pollution impacts, regulations, and health hazards must reflect the urgency of the moment.

    To begin telling an untold story about the precarious lives of those from vulnerable and underserved communities living in the shadow of our nation’s energy and chemical complexes, corporate broadcast news must begin reporting on how environmental justice intersects with people’s everyday lives and connecting environmental consequences to political and corporate policies and practices that lead to disproportionate and inequitable harm. They must also feature and amplify people from fenceline communities and continue to tell their stories in the ensuing days, months, and years.

    Environmental justice affects Midwest farmers who must recover from increasingly cataclysmic flooding to struggling coal miners advocating for a “just transition” away from fossil fuel extraction to Indigenous populations protesting extractive industries poisoning their lands to Black and Latino communities fighting for clean air and water in their neighborhoods. 

    Applying an environmental justice lens to these stories means reporting on their throughline or commonality; it means contextualizing the disproportionate harm these communities face by reporting on the systemic inequalities and injustices that shape them. It also means informing the public about the ways these communities are fighting for their health and wellbeing and what public policy solutions exist to aid them in their efforts.

  • 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, 2017, through December 31, 2020.

    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.