Sparse, context-free reporting on climate protests not only distorts public perception of their immediacy, but also leaves unaddressed the increasing trend of their criminalization

Media Matters / Andrea Austria

Research/Study Research/Study

National news' scant coverage of climate protests largely overlooked the scientific urgency driving controversial climate actions

Sparse, context-free reporting on climate protests not only distorts public perception of their immediacy, but also leaves unaddressed the increasing trend of their criminalization

The past year has seen a global surge in climate activism, spurred by the escalating climate crisis, including controversial actions such as throwing paint and food at venerable works of art, bringing bustling city traffic to a halt, and disrupting major athletic competitions, among others. 

A Media Matters analysis of coverage by major national TV news networks and the top five U.S. newspapers by circulation reveals a troubling trend: Coverage of such disruptive climate protests over the last year was not only limited, but also heavily skewed, often focusing on the disruptive tactics of the activists rather than the urgent climate message driving their actions. Coverage also rarely pointed out the increasingly hostile and punitive response from police and governments that these provocative tactics have increasingly drawn. 

From May 30, 2022, to July 31, 2023, Media Matters found:

  • National TV news broadcasters — ABC, CBS, and NBC — and major cable news networks — CNN and MSNBC — aired 43 segments about various climate protests. 
  • Corporate broadcast TV networks aired a combined 7 segments about climate protests, and none of them included context about the scientific warnings driving the actions. 
  • CNN and MSNBC aired a combined 36 climate protest segments, and only 7 of them (16%) referenced scientific warnings about climate change. CNN led with 4 segments that included context about the scientific warnings about climate, followed by MSNBC with 3.
  • Fox News dominated cable news coverage of climate protests with 144 segments — four times the combined coverage of its competitors CNN (27 segments) and MSNBC (9 segments). Fox’s coverage mentioned climate change 8 times only to deny the scientific consensus or downplay the urgency of the crisis, hence those segments were also excluded from the final tally.
  • The top five U.S. newspapers by circulation (the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today) published a combined 34 stories in their print editions about various climate protests — just 16 specifically referenced scientific warnings about climate change.
  • MSNBC was the only major news network to mention the criminalization of climate protests, airing a single segment. The New York Times (3 articles) and The Washington Post (1 article) were the only top five newspapers that mentioned the legal reprisals against climate protesters.
  • Climate activism’s daunting battle for major news media’s attention

  • Securing substantial and meaningful mainstream media coverage remains a daunting challenge for climate protesters, regardless of whether their activism involves marching in the streets or executing bold direct actions. This dynamic raises critical questions about how climate issues are prioritized in the public discourse and underscores the essential role media plays in shaping this narrative.

    For example, in the week leading up to Earth Day 2023, broadcast networks allocated just over 3 hours of coverage to the global event and less than an hour on Earth Day itself. But when it comes to more confrontational climate actions, the media attention is hardly consistent or proportional. 

    Climate activists engaged in civil disobedience are often portrayed merely as disruptors, with the news media failing to adequately communicate the grave climate concerns that drive their actions. Furthermore, the intensifying government responses to these acts of dissent — from heightened policing to punitive legislation aimed at deterring future activism — are frequently sidelined in the reporting, creating an incomplete picture of the full stakes involved in these protests.

  • How major broadcast and cable news covered climate protests

  • The coverage of climate protests by major broadcast and cable news networks over the last year was not only sparse, but it predominantly focused on the disruptive actions of the activists without adequately addressing the urgent climate crisis driving these actions and the increasingly severe responses they provoked.

    From May 30, 2022, through July 31, 2023, broadcast TV news networks aired just 7 segments about various climate protests. ABC aired 4 segments about climate protests, followed by NBC with 2, and CBS with 1. None of the corporate broadcast networks’ segments about climate protests referenced scientific warnings about climate change or mentioned the escalating legal reprisals against controversial climate actions.

    During the same period, CNN and MSNBC aired 36 segments about climate protests, with 7 mentioning scientific warnings about climate change. CNN aired 26 protest segments, with 4 climate science mentions, followed by MSNBC, with 9 segments and 3 mentions. 

    One of the better segments connecting climate protest to climate science aired during the April 23 episode of CNN Newsroom Live, which used the occasion of Earth Day to discuss the dual strategies climate activist group Extinction Rebellion was deploying to draw attention to the crisis and also included a detailed accounting of the climate threats facing the planet.

    MSNBC was the only cable network to air a segment that mentioned the legal backlash against climate activists. Ayman Mohyeldin, host of MSNBC’s Ayman, explicitly denounced the jailing of climate activists during a November 13, 2022, segment about imprisoned Egyptian journalist and activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s hunger strike during the United Nations’ COP 27 climate conference. 

    The host declared, “Look, there is no environmental justice without social justice. Governments cannot tackle the world’s climate needs with sobriety and urgency, while simultaneously imprisoning young activists around the world who are at the very forefront for the calls for change.”

    Despite these notable exceptions, broadcast and cable networks have largely provided limited and decontextualized coverage of climate protests. Most of their coverage focused on the art protests, specifically Just Stop Oil activists who threw soup at Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London last October. The activists who used charcoal to dye the Trevi Fountain in Rome black in May also received coverage from mainstream TV news outlets. 

    This reporting often neglected to connect the activists’ provocative methods to the pressing climate concerns propelling their actions or to mention the intensifying government reactions to these protests. This incomplete representation creates an information vacuum, conveniently filled by right-wing media, which could further skew public understanding of the climate crisis and its advocates.

  • Fox News’ coverage magnified and distorted climate protesters

  • Fox News has far too often filled the information vacuum around important environmental stories with a damaging mix of climate denial, misinformation, and derision.

    Overshadowing its mainstream cable news competitors, Fox again dominated cable news coverage of climate protests during the studied time period. The network aired 144 segments, which is four times CNN and MSNBC’s combined coverage. Fox also covered a much wider variety of climate protests than its cable news counterparts, with numerous segments abouts the demonstrators who protested the Congressional Baseball Game last July, the activists who deflated dozens of SUV tires in Boston in April, and the protesters who interrupted Wimbledon in July. 

    In 8 segments, Fox also explicitly denied or downplayed the climate emergency driving the activists’ actions. For example, during a segment that aired on the May 22 episode of Fox News Tonight about Roman climate protesters who dyed the Trevi Fountain black to draw attention to the link between fossil fuel consumption and devastating floods in northern Italy, correspondent Trace Gallagher noted, “Historians inconveniently remind the protesters that the rain drought pattern in northern Italy has been happening for thousands of years, maybe millions.” 

    Fox’s coverage routinely mocked and derided climate activists. For example, during the May 23 episode of Fox News’ The Five, co-host Jeanine Piro called the Trevi Fountain protesters “lunatics” and asked, “Is there something off in their brain that makes them do this?” 

    During the June 1 episode of Fox & Friends, Fox host Carley Shimkus said it was “positively hilarious” that one of the climate protesters who interrupted a Swedish dance competition had been deliberately hit by a piece of camera equipment, before the hosts mused about assaulting hypothetical protesters who happened into the Fox News studio.

    Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade again wished violence upon climate activists during a July 6 segment about a protest that disrupted Wimbledon, saying he hoped that security “roughed up” the protesters.

  • The top five major newspapers’ print coverage of climate protests was mixed

  • The top five newspapers by circulation (the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today) published a combined 34 stories in their print editions about various climate protests during the studied time period, and 14 of them included specific mentions of climate science. 

    The Washington Post led with 15 total articles about climate protests, 7 of which mentioned the scientific warnings about climate change; the Los Angeles Times followed with 7 articles with 4 mentions; The New York Times ran 6 articles with 2 mentions; The Wall Street Journal ran 2 articles with no mentions; and USA Today ran 1 article with no mentions. The New York Times and The Washington Post were the only top five newspapers to mention the legal reprisals against climate protesters, with 3 and 1 mention, respectively.

    The coverage within the United States' leading newspapers revealed diverse, often conflicting narratives, where nuanced insights coexisted with more surface-level stories about climate protests, even within the same publications, creating a stark contrast in the way the protests were presented to readers.

    For example, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post each published several articles that examined the ominous scientific warnings about climate change fueling the urgency of the protests, providing readers a more complete understanding of the activists' cause. However, these same newspapers also published other articles that ignored the larger story of the climate crisis and focused on the protesters’ tactics. The lack of context in these pieces clouded or obscured the urgent message that activists sought to convey. This mixed approach underscores the need for more consistent, comprehensive, and empathetic reporting of climate protests that reflect the gravity of the issue at hand.

    Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal’s 2 print articles about climate protests during the studied period were uniform in their condemnation of the activists and their tactics. The right-leaning newspaper is owned by the Murdoch family, which also owns Fox News among a number of other right-wing media outlets.

    Regarding legal reprisals, The Washington Post published a strong editorial on June 16 that decried the Vietnamese government’s imprisonment under false pretenses of Hoang Thi Minh Hong, who is described as “the country’s leading climate activist.” And a July 12 New York Times article about various climate protests at museums noted that the United States was approaching a “tipping point” as “prosecutors have brought serious federal charges against protesters who threatened the safety of art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which is a federal institution.” But such coverage remains sparse.

  • National news media overlook the escalating criminalization of climate protests

  • The national news media's insufficient reporting on climate protests neglects a particularly significant and troubling trend: the escalating draconian response to these protests and the concurrent rise in the criminalization of climate activism.

    The increasingly oppressive response to provocative climate protests, characterized by brutal policing and punitive legal measures, reflects a broader trend in criminalizing dissent to deter protesters and inhibit the global mobilization efforts of environmental movements.

    This dearth of coverage not only overlooks an alarming pattern of legislative hostility toward current iterations of climate activism, but it also ignores the array of so-called “critical infrastructure” laws crafted to penalize environmental protests that have been enacted across numerous states. These laws, often advocated by the fossil fuel industry and their proxies, propose severe penalties for protests near fossil fuel infrastructure and prescribe hefty fines for organizations supporting such actions, and they have already caused a great deal of harm among the U.S. climate activist community. 

    In January, 26-year-old Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán was killed by law enforcement officers during a raid on the Defend Atlanta Forest encampment. Other forest defenders have subsequently been charged with domestic terrorism for protesting the construction of a police training facility in Atlanta, dubbed “Cop City.” 

    Meanwhile, during protests of the construction of the Line 3 pipeline project in Minnesota, a thousand-mile crude oil pipeline from Canada to Wisconsin, the Enbridge pipeline company paid police officers to harass and mass arrest climate activists and entangle them in complex and expensive legal proceedings. 

    And choosing to focus sparse coverage of climate protests on the disruptive tactics of activists can have further harmful implications. By portraying protesters as threats rather than as citizens responding to an existential crisis, media narratives provide fodder for right-wing outlets and social media influencers to rationalize violence. This escalates risks for frontline climate activists and adds to the pervading environment of fear and intimidation. 

    Unfortunately, significant incidents and policy changes often go underreported. For instance, the United Kingdom introduced draft legislation posing unprecedented restrictions on the right to protest, yet this development received little attention in mainstream media. 

    Similarly, several American states have passed laws that exonerate drivers who hit protesters with their vehicles, a frightening development considering similar incidents in Australia and Germany

    National news media bear a substantial responsibility for reporting on climate protests with depth, substance, and accuracy, especially given the torrent of harmful narratives from right-wing media outlets such as Fox News which frequently seek to distort and diminish the urgency of climate change. Mainstream news outlets must thus strive to provide comprehensive coverage that transcends a narrow focus on protest tactics and emphasizes the scientific underpinnings of the protests, the heightened legal repercussions faced by activists, and the increased criminalization of these vital expressions of dissent.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream and Kinetiq video databases for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC and 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 the term “climate” within close proximity of any variations of any of the terms “protest,” “activism,” or “demonstration” from May 29, 2022, when a man disguised as an elderly women smashed cake on the glass protecting the “Mona Lisa,” through July 31, 2023.

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

    We also searched print articles in the Factiva and Nexis databases for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today for the term “climate” in the same headline or lead paragraphs as any variation of any of the terms “protest,” “activism,” “advocate,” or “demonstration” from May 29, 2022, through July 14, 2023.

    We included news articles, which we defined as instances when an article in the news section or editorial of one of the above newspapers mentioned climate activism in the headline or lead paragraphs. We did not include editorial letters to the editor.

    We then reviewed all identified segments and articles for whether they included context about the scientific warnings that underpin climate activism or mentioned the legal reprisals against climate protesters.