In 2021, national TV news has done a much better job of linking extreme weather events to climate change. During the record-breaking Western heat wave in July, 38% of broadcast and cable news segments from July 8-12 made the connection to climate change, while 36% of wildfire coverage from July 21-27 made the connection. More recently, Media Matters found that broadcast and cable TV news shows aired a combined 95 segments from August 11 through August 18 on myriad extreme weather events that spanned the globe and that just over 30% of these segments referenced climate change. By comparison, extreme weather events last year failed to propel TV news to discuss the climate crisis, including when temperatures in a small community in Siberia hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit in June 2020 followed by record-breaking and prolonged heat in large swaths of the U.S. and the most powerful hurricane to hit Louisiana in 150 years.
Recognizing that national news programs have begun to more consistently link climate-driven extreme weather events to global warming, Media Matters conducted another analysis of recent extreme weather segments that aired on broadcast morning and evening news shows as well as all original programming on the major cable news networks. Our goal was to determine if, in addition to linking these events to climate science, this reporting also told a congruent story about extreme weather that incorporated the need for climate action, while highlighting how extreme weather events affect socially marginalized or vulnerable populations.
Our findings indicate that national TV news coverage of climate change is still failing to contextualize who is at greater risk from climate-driven extreme weather and why; still failing to detail how climate inaction has brought us to this precarious moment and what actions are needed to stave off the worst consequences of climate change; and still failing to grasp how seemingly disparate extreme weather events from around the world are connected.
Rather than resting on their collective laurels, broadcast news shows and cable news networks must continue to address their climate coverage’s glaring blind spots. With peak hurricane season looming, coupled with a nearly year-long wildfire season, they will unfortunately have continued opportunities to do so.
Extreme weather segments mention climate change but fail to tell the larger story
Media Matters reviewed a combined 106 climate segments that broadcast and cable news aired during July 8-12 coverage of the Western U.S. heat wave, during July 21-27 coverage of wildfires, and during August 11-18 coverage of multiple extreme weather events in the United States and abroad. Our analysis found that only 17 segments, or 16%, discussed how climate-driven extreme weather affects socially marginalized communities.
This is journalistic malpractice.
Broadcast and cable news performed slightly better in connecting extreme weather to climate action: 24 climate segments, or 23%, mentioned the potential climate impacts of the current infrastructure and reconciliation bills moving through Congress, the need of resiliency and mitigation planning for future extreme weather events, or a more general call to cut carbon emissions. However, there is still a large disconnect between the reporting on the scale of these climate-driven events and reporting on local, federal, and global actions to address climate change.
In addition to showing how rarely people most vulnerable to climate change were mentioned during extreme weather segments, the data also gives us insight into how news programs prioritized climate change in their coverage. Our analysis found that extreme weather segments that mentioned climate change were the lead segment only five times, or 5%. Even the best climate segments often aired toward the middle or end of an episode.
Qualitatively, we found that even when climate change was mentioned during extreme weather segments, these programs rarely connected the current extreme weather event with past and future events, or concurrent events, which could leave viewers with the impression that these stories are isolated and disconnected. This reporting belies the current moment that leaves one staggered by the sheer breadth of devastating and unprecedented extreme weather events this summer alone. In just the past few weeks, there’s been blistering heat waves that have impacted tens of millions of Americans, destructive wildfires that have burned more than 600,000 acres in California and forced thousands to flee in Turkey, Greece, and France and wildfires in Siberia that have burned more land than all of the fires across the world combined.
Most recently, drought triggered the first ever water shortage at Lake Mead, which is America’s largest reservoir, while three consecutive storms barraged the United States with deadly flooding and tornadoes and brought heavy rain to earthquake-battered Haiti. Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded in human history.
These are not separate, disparate events. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent landmark climate report detailed in the starkest terms that there is “unequivocal” evidence that humans are responsible for climate change and confirmed that climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying.” But Media Matters’ recent analysis found that only 13% of broadcast and cable TV news shows even bothered to mention the climate report in their recent mid-August round of segments about the latest climate-driven extreme weather events.
National TV news coverage of extreme weather, even when it mentions climate change, can no longer afford to cover these events in isolation, but must cover these increasingly frequent and devastating events as one congruent story. And, in telling that story, they must contextualize the challenges global warming poses to vulnerable communities and how political inaction has allowed the fossil fuel industry to pollute our air, land, and water with impunity.
Although this quality of reporting happens far less often than it should, we reviewed some notable climate segments that point the way forward.
Notable climate segments that told a more complete story about extreme weather
The best extreme weather segments go beyond being a mere catalogue of horrors. They take the time to explain the science behind the event, give the devastation a human face, discuss the impact to the most vulnerable communities, and tie the climate crisis to fossil fuel pollution and/or political inaction.
Although very few climate segments incorporate all of these issues, the better ones incorporate at least more than one. For example, the July 9 episode of PBS' NewsHour correspondent William Brangham framed a segment about the heat wave around the “the illness and the death” associated with it. Brangham also noted that “it’s not like the suffering is spread equally" and mentioned the impact extreme heat has on elderly and poor communities, homeless people, and those without access to air conditioning. He also explained how climate change was driving more intense and frequent heat waves.
During the July 12 episode of MSNBC’s Katy Tur Reports, guest anchor Kendis Gibson featured Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to discuss how climate change was driving extreme weather events from heat waves to wildfires. The wide-ranging discussion touched on extreme weather affecting infrastructure, agriculture, low-income communities, farmers and outdoor laborers, and people without air conditioners in their homes.
The July 11 episode of MSNBC’s PoliticsNation featured a substantive discussion of extreme weather’s impact on vulnerable communities, which tethered those impacts to whether they would be sufficiently addressed by climate measures in the infrastructure package. Host Al Sharpton featured longtime environmental justice activist Peggy Shepard who contextualized the need the need for strong infrastructure to combat climate and environmental challenges communities of color face.
The release of the IPCC report coupled with the dramatic extreme weather events seen across the globe drove some of the best coverage about how global warming connects seemingly disparate extreme weather events and even spurred some conversations about solutions to address climate change. For example, during the August 12 episode of CNN Newsroom, anchor Erica Hill hosted Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan to discuss the climate provisions of the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill, as well as the EPA’s renewed focus on addressing environmental injustice.
MSNBC’s The Cross Connection With Tiffany Cross featured Mustafa Santiago Ali, an environmental justice activist and vice president of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, who articulated what the IPCC’s findings mean for socially marginalized communities and how climate impacts such as extreme heat disproportionately harm Black and Latin communities. He even made a call to action encouraging people to get involved in demanding resources to meet these challenges.
By far, the strongest segment, or segments, on either broadcast or cable aired during the July 21 episode of All In with Chris Hayes. Clocking in at nearly 18 minutes, Hayes opened his broadcast with an urgent monologue that connected multiple extreme weather events to climate change, discussed how Republican intransigence to Biden’s admittedly scaled down bipartisan infrastructure bill would continue to stall climate action, and mocked the absurdity of the billionaire space race. He then featured Oregon Gov. Kate Brown who discussed current and future wildfire mitigation efforts in her state, and featured professor, journalist, and activist Naomi Klein to discuss the dire ramifications of climate-driven internal migration within the United States.
National news programs will have an opportunity to deepen their coverage during peak hurricane season
Last year, a Media Matters analysis of coverage of seven hurricanes and one tropical storm that occurred between 2017 to 2019 found that none of the 669 corporate broadcast evening news segments about these storms explicitly discussed their outsized impact on low-income communities or communities of color. Only PBS aired segments that made this connection.
This unfortunate trend continued last year when none of the broadcast or cable segments aired about Hurricane Laura from August 27 through September 4, 2020, mentioned the historic and devastating storm’s disproportionate impacts on vulnerable communities in southwestern Louisiana.
Broadcast and cable news coverage must extend beyond mentioning climate change and showing the devastation and misery these events leave in their wake: National TV news must contextualize how these climate-driven extreme weather events are related and detail how and why vulnerable communities are more susceptible to the risks of extreme weather because of racist settling practices such as redlining and their inability to afford the economic costs of evacuating, rebuilding, or relocating. Because these inequities are often compounded by discriminatory practices in receiving federal aid, news reports should also include vital information about resources for those trying to evacuate or recover from devastating extreme weather events.
The needle on climate coverage is moving, but connecting extreme weather to climate change is not enough. It is only the first in an important series of steps. In fact, the IPCC offers guidance on how to frame what we see happening now:
The distinction between extreme weather events and extreme climate events is not precise, but is related to their specific time scales:
- An extreme weather event is typically associated with changing weather patterns, that is, within time frames of less than a day to a few weeks.
- An extreme climate event happens on longer time scales. It can be the accumulation of several (extreme or non-extreme) weather events (e.g., the accumulation of moderately below-average rainy days over a season leading to substantially below-average cumulated rainfall and drought conditions).
Looking at the multiple, record-breaking heat waves this summer, the seemingly never-ending wildfire season, and the upcoming peak of hurricane season, it is hard not to see the compound event as part of extreme climate events rather than isolated weather phenomenon.
By consistently connecting the dots in our hellish new normal, national news programs can begin telling a more complete story about the climate crisis, which must include calling out climate inaction, detailing potential climate actions, and reporting on the most vulnerable people and communities. In 2021 and going forward, the stakes are too high for these ongoing missed opportunities.
Media Matters reviewed climate segments from our July 14, 2021, study on heat wave coverage; our August 4, 2021, study of wildfire coverage; and our August 25, 2021, study of extreme weather coverage.
We defined segments as instances when heat waves, wildfires, or extreme weather were the stated topics of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of the heat waves, wildfires, or extreme weather events. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the heat waves, wildfires, or extreme weather events with one another.
We then reviewed the identified segments for mentions of any of the demographic and socio-economic terms “White,” “Black,” “African American,” “American Indian,” “Alaska Native,” “Latino,” “Hispanic,” “Indigenous,” “low income,” “poor,” or “immigrant.” We also reviewed segments for climate actions by searching for any mention of any of the terms “resiliency,” “infrastructure,” “reconciliation,” “emissions,” or “climate action.” Finally, we noted whether such climate segments were the lead segments of their episodes.