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Most TV news networks failed to mention the role of climate change in Texas' largest wildfire on record

TV news is reporting on the fingerprints of climate change without calling it climate change

  • Texas is experiencing the largest wildfire in the state’s history, which now also ranks among the most destructive in U.S. history. Although the conditions that made the fire so explosive were exacerbated by climate change, this connection was almost entirely missing from TV news reports in the first week of this ongoing tragedy.

    The largest of the five major wildfires raging across the Texas Panhandle, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, ignited on February 26 and has already scorched over 1 million acres. The fire has claimed at least two lives, “likely killed tens of thousands of livestock,” and left much of the Panhandle resembling a moonscape

    The Washington Post noted that the fires broke out amid both record high temperatures — “more than 20 degrees above normal high temperatures for late February” — and “a trend toward large and more frequent wildfires on the grasslands of the Great Plains.” 

    Although the high temperatures and other environmental factors were often mentioned in TV news segments about the Texas fires, that coverage almost entirely failed to connect these conditions to climate change, despite their obvious links. 

    As The New York Times reported, “Climate change is increasing the risk of wildfires in Texas, a danger made real this week as the Smokehouse Creek fire, the largest in state history, burns out of control across the Panhandle region.”

    Key Findings:

    From February 27, when a state of emergency was declared for 60 counties in the Texas Panhandle, through March 4:

    • Cable news networks CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC aired 125 combined segments on the Texas wildfires. Only 4 mentioned climate change — CNN mentioned the link 3 times, and MSNBC mentioned it once.
    • Corporate broadcast news networks ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 49 segments on the wildfires. None of them mentioned climate change.
    • Combined cable and corporate broadcast TV news aired 174 segments on the Texas wildfires — with barely 2% mentioning climate change.
  • TV news coverage often discussed climate change’s fingerprints on the Texas wildfires — without naming them as climate impacts

  • The extreme and rapid spread of the wildfires caught both residents and experts off guard. As reported by CNN, the severity of the Smokehouse Creek Fire “was due to a perfect storm of environmental factors: highly flammable grasses and strong winds combined with record-high temperatures and dry conditions — the kind of extreme weather often exacerbated by climate change.”

    But TV news coverage of the fires largely ignored links between these “environmental factors” and our changing climate.

    On the March 4 edition of NBC’s Nightly News with Lester Holt, Texas official Eric Smith used similar language, saying, “We're not used to the conditions having lined up … .It was all just lined up to be the perfect storm.” However, the segment failed to connect those same conditions to climate change.

    On the February 29 edition of Fox & Friends First, a helicopter pilot fighting the fires said, “I have never seen anything that compares to the magnitude of this fire,” before referencing its early start as one reason officials were caught off guard.

    Another hallmark of climate change, as reported by The New York Times, is an early start or a lengthening of the fire season, but Fox & Friends First left this connection out of its coverage.

    The Texas Tribune reported on exactly how climate change fueled the high temperatures that impacted the rapid spread of the flames: “Climate Central … found that the heat on the day the fires started was at least three times more likely than it would have been if human-caused climate change weren’t occurring.”

    Broadcast and cable news frequently cited the abnormally high temperatures as a reason the fires exploded, but they almost never connected the conditions to the climate crisis.

    For example, on the March 4 edition of Fox News’ Your World with Neil Cavuto, correspondent Casey Stegall reported that the fire was, “fueled by unseasonably high temperatures, gusty winds, and very dry vegetation.”

    CNN meteorologist Elisa Raffa mentioned in at least two of her reports that temperatures were “a good 10-15 degrees above normal.

    And on the February 29 edition of NBC’s Today, correspondent Guad Venegas reported, “The flames, driven by unseasonable high temperatures, dry conditions and strong winds, creating rare firenadoes.” None of these segments mentioned climate change.

    Notably, Texas was not alone in experiencing abnormal temperatures, as correspondent Adrienne Broaddus reported on the February 28 edition of Today during a segment on extreme weather events impacting communities across the country.

    “With more than 100 cities hitting daily record highs this week, including typically chilly Rochester, New York, which tied for its warmest February temperature ever recorded at 70 degrees,” Broaddus said. "Some anglers in Missouri even out fishing, and not on ice, as extreme weather wreaks havoc across the country.”

    But even while these various extreme weather events played out simultaneously across the country, networks mostly failed to tie them together as symptoms of the same crisis.

  • CNN and MSNBC were the only networks to mention climate change in their wildfire coverage — and they barely mentioned it

  • On CNN Newsroom with Jim Acosta, chief climate correspondent Bill Weir alluded to the idea that the extreme behavior of the Texas wildfires should not be considered as an isolated phenomenon, concluding, “These are lessons for a hotter, drier, more predictable future. And we need to harden our homes, ourselves, our communities because this is the new normal, I’m afraid.” (He made a similar observation in his coverage of the recent flooding in California.)

  • Video file

    Citation From the February 28, 2024, edition of CNN Newsroom with Jim Acosta

  • During a March 2 interview with a representative of a ranching association impacted by the wildfires, CNN Newsroom Live anchor Kim Brunhuber characterized the wildfires as part of the broader climate crisis and questioned whether we are prepared for these ongoing extreme events.

    “You in Texas, you've had years of drought, the vegetation, the land is dry, the climate is getting hotter,” Brunhuber said. “We're going to see more and more of these types of fires just like, you know, I've covered for years in California that we're seeing record-breaking fire after record-breaking fire. Are people there in Texas prepared?”

    CNN’s third climate mention appeared on its Sunday morning political program, State of the Union, when host Dana Bash directly asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about the connection between the wildfires and the climate crisis.

    “I have to ask you about what's going on in Texas,” Bash began. “The largest wildfire in history already killed two people, destroyed up to 500 structures. How dangerous is the situation? What's the federal government doing? And do you think that the climate crisis has anything to do with this?”

    MSNBC’s one climate mention came not from a network anchor but from a guest, Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-TX).

    Host Katie Phang concluded a March 2 interview with Crockett by asking her about the wildfires in Texas and how they might impact primary voting. Crockett responded by connecting the dots between the wildfire conditions, climate change, and the need for a bipartisan response to the crisis:

  • REP. JASMINE CROCKETT: We are talking about our farmers and our ranchers that are being impacted, not to mention the environmental impact that this is going to have on our community. It is important that we as Americans — not as Democrats, Republicans, or independents, but as Americans — get serious about climate change and start to leave this world in the way that we can. … If we are going to do something not only for those in Texas but those in this country and those in this world, we’ve got to be serious about climate change, and this is a great opportunity to start to get serious about it.

  • Video file

    Citation From the March 2, 2024, edition of MSNBC's The Katie Phang Show

  • While cable and corporate broadcast news programs largely failed to report the links between climate change and the Texas wildfires, those that did connect them provided examples of how to best incorporate climate change into extreme weather coverage. Other outlets must follow their lead by showing the connection between environmental factors behind these events and others that are part of the broader climate crisis; tying the government’s response to the need for federal climate action; and directly questioning officials about whether we are prepared for weather becoming increasingly more extreme and destructive due to global warming.

  • Methodology

  • 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 as well as all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “smoke,” “flame,” or “blaze” or any variations of either of the terms “fire” or “wildfire” within close proximity of any of the terms “Texas,” “Creek,” “panhandle,” “Canadian,” “Fritch,” “North Plains Electric Cooperative,” “Amarillo,” or “Oklahoma” or any variation of the term “Smokehouse” from February 27, 2024, when the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Texas history ignited, through March 4, 2024.

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Texas was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the Texas wildfires. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the wildfires with one another.

    We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the wildfires without another speaker in the segment engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the wildfires scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed the identified segments for mentions of the terms “climate” or “global warming.”