A new Media Matters study has found that corporate broadcast news networks largely failed to connect recent flooding events in Texas and the South to climate change.
From January 24, 2024, when a state of emergency was declared in southeast Texas, through January 25, 2024:
- Corporate broadcast outlets aired 26 minutes of combined coverage across 21 segments about the destructive flooding impacting millions of Americans.
- Only 3 segments connected the extreme weather to climate change. Two weather segments on NBC’s Today and one segment that aired on CBS Evening News made the connection. None of ABC’s coverage linked the flooding to climate change.
Heavy precipitation has caused destructive and deadly flooding in Texas and throughout the South, dumping “a month’s worth of rain in 3 days.” The extreme weather is consistent with a warming planet, which increases “the severity and frequency of such heavy rainfall events.” The weather system impacting the South brought a “thousand-year storm” to southern California earlier in the week, prompting Los Angeles Times reporter Sammy Roth to point out that the intense rain and flooding is “what climate change looks like.”
As extreme weather becomes a year round event, networks must consistently contextualize these events within the climate crisis
NBC Today weatherman and anchor Al Roker connected the destructive rain events to climate change during two of his weather reports on January 25. During the 7 o'clock hour, Roker noted that from Texas to the Northeast, some areas had seen more than twice the average precipitation for January, saying, “In these areas that have the green dots, it's their top ten wettest January on record, and we're not done with the month yet. And this is because of the climate connection.” He made the link again during another weather report later in the program.
CBS was the only network to make the climate connection during its evening news program. On the January 24 edition of CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell a report on the flooding included this statement connecting it directly to climate science:
“Scientists say climate change will make scenarios like these a regular reality. With every one degree of warming, the air can hold 4% more moisture, and it has to go somewhere. Meaning more rain and more flooding.”
And while its morning news program did not make the link, one weather report on the flooding did conclude with coverage of the abnormally high temperatures across the country, with The Weather Channel’s Stephanie Abrams adding, “Hopefully this trend doesn't continue, as the last decade has been the hottest on record.”
Again, illustrating how easy it is to tether extreme weather to the broader climate change story.
Extreme weather is becoming a regular part of broadcast news coverage, but it is mostly reported without giving the context of the climate crisis of which it is a symptom. In 2023, the U.S. experienced a record number of billion-dollar disasters, and the planet experienced its hottest year on record. A relentless heat wave claimed 600 lives in Phoenix, and many more deaths were attributed to extreme heat across the U.S. and the globe, along with fatalities related to other extreme weather events. Some places in the U.S. are becoming virtually uninhabitable as some insurance companies pull out of states that now regularly experience extreme weather. 2024 is expected to bring even more destruction and deadly events. It is past time for consistent and clear-eyed coverage that places extreme weather events within the broader climate crisis.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Snapstream video database for all original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ Mornings and Evening News, and NBC’s Today and Nightly News for any variations of either of the terms “flood” or “rain” within close proximity of any of the terms “Texas,” “Louisiana,” “Mississippi,” “Georgia,” “Tennessee,” “Gulf Coast,” “Gulf of Mexico,” “Alabama,” “Carolina,” “Appalachian,” “Kentucky,” “Virginia,” “the South,” or “Deep South” from January 24, 2024, when local officials declared a disaster warning in southeastern Texas, through January 25, 2024.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the flooding in the South was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion about the flooding. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the flooding with one another.
We also timed mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker mentioned the flooding without another speaker engaging with the comment.
We rounded all times to the nearest minute.
We then reviewed the identified segments for whether they also mentioned “climate” or “global warming.”