CBS & PBS covered the UN climate change and oceans report
Ceci Freed / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Mixed coverage of new UN climate report underscores need for the Covering Climate Now journalism initiative

CBS Evening News and PBS Newshour were the only broadcast nightly news shows to cover the recent UN climate report

  • On September 25, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its third major climate change report of the last year. The latest IPCC report paints a grim picture for the world’s oceans, ice, and marine ecosystems.

    The report’s release came on the heels of the Covering Climate Now project, an ambitious effort in which 300 worldwide outlets signed on “to maximize coverage of the climate crisis and its impacts in the lead up to the United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.” Unfortunately, many major U.S. news outlets abstained from the effort; CBS News and PBS NewsHour were the only major national broadcast television partners of Covering Climate Now, and The Seattle Times was the only top 15 U.S. print newspaper by circulation to partner with the project.

    Ultimately, newspapers -- including those unaffiliated with the Covering Climate Now project -- did a much better job than major broadcast networks of covering the new IPCC report. Twelve of the top 15 U.S. newspapers by circulation covered the new report in print. But on TV, CBS Evening News and PBS NewsHour were the only major broadcast nightly news shows to cover the report.

  • The U.N. Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate paints a grim picture for the world’s oceans

  • The comprehensive IPCC report, which The New York Times notes was “written by more than 100 international experts and is based on more than 7,000 studies,” finds that climate change is already having dangerous effects: Oceans are getting warmer and losing oxygen; polar ice sheet loss has increased and is accelerating sea level rise; and as snowpack declines, water scarcity and wildfires will worsen.

    The report also finds that a number of these dangerous effects are essentially unavoidable. Marine heat waves, which can kill corals, are estimated to be at least 20 times as common by 2020 as they were in the late 1800s -- and that’s in a best-case scenario. Hundred-year floods will also become an annual occurrence for some major coastal cities by 2050. The report calls for countries to adopt climate adaptation measures such as building seawalls to adapt to these unavoidable changes.

  • CBS Evening News and PBS NewsHour were the only broadcast nightly news shows to cover the report

  • Out of the major broadcast nightly news shows airing on September 25, when the report was released, only CBS Evening News and PBS NewsHour ran a segment on the oceans report.

    On CBS, anchor Norah O’Donnell referred to it as the “most alarming report yet on climate change.” The segment followed correspondent Mireya Villarreal as she reported on the impacts of sea level rise on South Florida.

  • Video file

    Citation From the September 25 episode of CBS Evening News

  • PBS NewsHour devoted roughly seven minutes to covering the report. Correspondent William Brangham spoke to report co-author Michael Oppenheimer about his findings and their implications for the future of ocean life.

    This coverage also makes CBS Evening News and PBS NewsHour the only nightly news shows on the major broadcast networks to cover all three of the recent IPCC climate reports. That coverage included segments on October 8, 2018, about the Global Warming of 1.5 ºC report, and August 8, 2019, about the Climate Change and Land report. ABC’s World News Tonight covered the 1.5C and land reports, while NBC Nightly News covered only the 1.5C report.

    The silence from NBC’s news shows on the oceans report (the morning show Today did not cover the report either) is particularly head-scratching. While the network did not sign up as a partner for the Covering Climate Now project, NBC News recently created a new climate unit that is dedicated to telling environmental stories. The network also produced “Climate in Crisis,” a weeklong series of climate stories that ran from September 15-20. But the network completely failed to cover a massive new climate report just a few days later on its major news shows.

    Their failure to cover the report also contradicts a recent statement from Rashida Jones, NBC News’ senior vice president of specials, who commented on the creation of the climate unit: “We are not just going to do a week on this and then won’t be talking about it again. This is the biggest story of our time.”

    Jones was right that climate change is the biggest story of our time, and NBC Nightly News -- with an average viewership of nearly 8 million -- should be giving the issue the attention that it deserves.

  • Over half of U.S.-based television and print outlets that signed up for Covering Climate Now mentioned the report

  • Covering Climate Now, a project launched jointly by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, brought together more than 300 outlets worldwide to “raise their game” on climate coverage for the week of September 15-23. The idea of the project was to have outlets do more and better coverage of climate -- to “try it for a week, then report back on what you learned.”

    Media Matters reviewed coverage of the September 25 U.N. report from the 34 U.S.-based newspapers and television outlets that signed up for Covering Climate Now to see if any of these outlets extended their climate-focused coverage past September 23. We found that out of those 34 participating U.S.-based outlets, 20 of them mentioned the September 25-released U.N. climate report. These outlets were:

    Those outlets that did not cover the U.N. climate report were:

    • The Charleston Gazette-Mail (West Virginia), The Gazette (Colorado), DigBoston, The Express News Group (New York), the Montgomery Advertiser (Alabama), the National Catholic Reporter, The News Journal (Delaware), The News-Press (Florida), The Nome Nugget (Alaska), Cheddar, NowThis, NUVO, Univision, and WJCT

    Several of those outlets that did not cover the U.N. report are located in coastal states that will likely be affected by the impacts the report details. While it’s encouraging that these outlets signed on to the Cover Climate Now project, their climate coverage should have continued to include the U.N. report’s release a few days later.

  • Top print newspapers in the U.S. did a good job of covering the latest report

  • Continuing upon their good coverage of the youth climate strikes on September 20, top newspapers across the country provided coverage of the U.N. climate report. Twelve of the top 15 U.S. newspapers by circulation covered the U.N. climate report in their print editions:

    Of these 12 newspapers, six produced original reporting on the report, and six ran reprints of coverage from The Associated Press. The Seattle Times is the only newspaper in this list that was a partner of Covering Climate Now.

    Newsday, the New York Daily News, and the New York Post were the three newspapers included in this analysis that did not cover the climate report in their print editions. However, they did cover the report in their online editions.

  • Projects like Covering Climate Now are crucial, and they should be ongoing

  • By all accounts, the Covering Climate Now project succeeded in getting people talking about climate change. According to Google Trends, September saw the most searches for “climate change” in history, and the search term’s biggest spike came during the week of September 20, which featured both the Global Climate Strike and the Covering Climate Now stories.

    However, the organizers of Covering Climate Now have noted that there are still some roadblocks to getting newsrooms to cover climate change. It also doesn’t help that climate change has become a heavily politicized issue thanks in part to a well-funded and decades-long campaign to sow doubt about the scientific certainty of the issue -- including an ongoing effort by right-wing media to promote misinformation and climate denial.

    But the organizers of Covering Climate Now wrote that there is more to come, and they made a plea for major media outlets to lead:

  • As the scientists have been telling us with increasing urgency, humanity’s window to transform our world is shrinking fast. Transforming the news media is fundamental to achieving that goal.

    This is a chance for big media organizations to lead, and to help others along. The climate story stretches across all journalistic beats; it demands that we dismantle the usual siloes. Covering it well may require a bit of cooperation and collaboration that is antithetical to how we usually work. Take this on as a problem that is bigger than your own newsroom.

  • This is good to hear, because stories like those from the Covering Climate Now project should be part of regular news coverage. Unfortunately, some outlets still aren’t giving climate change the consistent and sustained attention that it deserves.


    To determine broadcast television coverage of the U.N. climate report, Media Matters searched the Nexis news database  for any of the terms “climate,” “warming,” “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” or “IPCC” within close proximity to any of the following terms: “report,” “study,” “ocean,” “marine,” or “ice.” The period covered was September 25 and September 26. Nightly news shows searched for were ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour. For the Covering Climate Now outlets, a Google search was conducted to determine which U.S.-based outlets covered the U.N. climate report. Both Connecticut Public and New Mexico PBS covered the report by running PBS NewsHour on September 25, which is why there is no link for those outlets. To determine report coverage from the top 15 U.S. newspapers by circulation, Media Matters searched Nexis, Google, and Press Reader for mentions of the report in print editions. Factiva was used to search for print mentions in The Wall Street Journal.