During the more than 3 ½ hours of mainstream cable and corporate broadcast news coverage on June 7 of the Canadian wildfire smoke event that created dangerous air quality conditions for large swaths of the East Coast, the reporting largely missed the mark, rarely contextualizing the prohibitive cost of mitigation for socially marginalized communities. This trend is not limited to this extreme weather event.
By ignoring the stark realities faced by the most vulnerable — those without the resources to mitigate the hardships of climate-driven extreme weather events such as heat waves, wildfire smoke, or devastating storms — broadcast and cable news shows can limit public awareness, and thus policy pressure and necessary resource allocation.
Climate change amplifies socioeconomic disparities
Climate change often intensifies existing socioeconomic disparities, which become glaringly evident during extreme weather events, where the differential access to resources becomes a matter of survival.
Take heat waves, for example. While many people can retreat to the comfort of air-conditioned homes, the economically disadvantaged, who often lack such luxuries, bear the brunt of the scorching heat, leading to adverse health outcomes and even fatalities. In addition, those who must work outdoors, such as construction workers, farmers, and street vendors, face heightened risks as they are directly exposed to extreme temperatures, with little or no respite. In fact, some states are proposing and passing protective measures for outdoor workers to address these concerns.
Hurricanes present a similar scenario. The ability to evacuate during these calamitous events is often dictated by financial means. The affluent can afford to relocate, often to safer accommodations, while the less privileged are left stranded, facing the direct impacts of these disasters. This stark difference demonstrates the need for equitable disaster management strategies that prioritize assistance and resources for those most at risk, ensuring that no one is left behind in the face of these increasingly frequent and devastating disasters.
Another example is the availability of air filtration systems and other adaptive resources during periods of poor air quality. When wildfire smoke renders the air unbreathable, those who can afford air filtration systems can shield themselves from the hazardous air. Meanwhile, those lacking such resources are left exposed, contributing to respiratory illnesses and other health complications.
How national TV news has covered socioeconomic disparities during discrete extreme weather events
In each of these instances, climate change highlights and amplifies socioeconomic disparities that national TV news has an obligation to cover.
For example, during coverage of the Pacific Northwest heat wave in 2021, which was described as the worst “ever observed anywhere in North America,” and which was responsible for nearly 200 deaths in Oregon and Washington and nearly 500 deaths in British Columbia, national TV news shows largely ignored its effects on vulnerable populations, including those who worked outdoors or lacked air conditioning.
Regarding hurricanes, broadcast and cable news coverage frequently overlooks those who are most vulnerable — the communities with the least ability to adapt, evacuate, and recover from these devastating events. For example, national TV news coverage of Hurricane Ida neglected the climate justice angle by ignoring people who lacked the means to evacuate. Meanwhile, broadcast and cable news coverage of Hurricane Ian’s aftermath rarely featured stories about how the lack of insurance made it much more difficult for large numbers of Floridians to rebuild and how vulnerable communities were left out of recovery and relief efforts.
The recent Canadian wildfire smoke event, which gravely affected air quality across broad regions of the East Coast, was inadequately covered by national TV news. A Media Matters review of the wildfire smoke coverage on June 7 found that some segments mentioned the benefits of air-filtration systems without noting that many people can’t afford these mitigation measures or acknowledging the links between the smoke event and the disparate air pollution borne by millions of disadvantaged individuals every day. According to the American Lung Association:
Due to decades of residential segregation, African Americans tend to live where there is greater exposure to air pollution.
Socioeconomic position also appears tied to greater harm from air pollution. Multiple large studies show evidence of that link. Low socioeconomic status consistently increased the risk of premature death from fine particle pollution among 13.2 million Medicare recipients studied in the largest examination of particle pollution-related mortality nationwide.
When media hubs and power centers are in the crosshairs of climate change impacts, national TV news coverage tends to amplify the story. This disproportionate coverage often sidelines the everyday struggles of marginalized communities, focusing instead on the effects of these extreme events in areas that are more affluent and influential.
For example, coverage of Hurricane Ida’s impact on the Northeast, which included torrential rains, multiple tornadoes, widespread flooding, and dozens of deaths, was substantive, and even included in-depth discussions about the need to improve and protect critical infrastructure on the East Coast.
Canada’s wildfires, which have been burning since March, had received little national TV news coverage until recently. It was only when the smoke from these fires began to blanket major cities and media hubs that it started to command the attention of broadcast and cable TV news, highlighting a concerning trend of selective coverage based on geographic and socioeconomic factors.
The need for more inclusive climate coverage
Selective reporting on climate impacts by national TV news networks has serious implications.
First, it could undermine public awareness about the full scope of the climate crisis, particularly regarding how it exacerbates existing socioeconomic disparities. Second, the uneven focus on harmful impacts to wealthier communities and power centers can reinforce societal inequalities.
Last, if media outlets disproportionately report on climate impacts affecting power centers, policymakers might prioritize the needs of wealthier communities, further marginalizing low-income communities and communities of color and perpetuating the cycle of inequality.
When broadcast and cable news outlets cover the stories of marginalized communities, they not only provide a more accurate picture of the climate crisis, but they could also foster solidarity among viewers who might otherwise remain unaware of their struggles. Hurricane coverage that clearly articulates that evacuation is not an option for everyone whether because of health or financial reasons could help neutralize the inevitable blame and judgment placed on those who stay behind.
And by clearly showing how the consequences of global warming are unevenly distributed across society, national TV news reporting could bolster the case for climate justice, which is vital to the formation of equitable climate policies.
By highlighting how individuals and communities are uniting to combat climate change, national TV news has the potential to inspire viewers, making them more likely to act in their own communities. The stories of resilience, adaptation, and mitigation from often overlooked communities can demonstrate that meaningful action on climate change is not only necessary but also possible.