National TV news chokes out the climate angle in coverage of Canadian wildfires

Media Matters / Andrea Austria

Research/Study Research/Study

National TV news chokes out the climate angle in coverage of Canadian wildfires

Only 17% of all mainstream cable and corporate broadcast news segments from a Media Matters review mentioned climate change

Despite the established scientific consensus linking climate change to more frequent and intense wildfires, national TV news networks have not consistently connected the Canadian wildfire smoke currently blanketing large swaths of the American East Coast to the climate crisis.

A review by Media Matters found that during a 24-hour period on June 7 national TV news broadcasters — ABC, CBS, and NBC — and cable news networks — CNN and MSNBC — covered the Canadian wildfire smoke blanketing the East Coast for more than 3 ½ hours across 89 segments. Within those segments climate change was mentioned 15 times. 

Fox News covered the story for 2 hours and 41 minutes across 55 segments. Fox’s coverage included 10 climate mentions — but they were all skeptical or dismissive of the role climate change played in making this year’s Canadian wildfire season more destructive.

  • How national TV news covered the Canadian wildfire smoke blanketing the East Coast

  • Among the broadcast networks, ABC covered the story for 6 minutes across 7 segments and mentioned climate change 2 times. NBC covered the story for 12 minutes across 6 segments, and CBS covered it for 6 minutes across 5 segments. Neither network’s reporting included a mention of climate change. 

    Among the cable networks, CNN covered the wildfire smoke for 2 hours and 19 minutes across 54 segments, mentioning climate 8 times. MSNBC covered the story for 41 minutes across 17 segments, with 5 climate mentions.

    Fox News covered the wildfire smoke for 2 hours and 41 minutes, accounting for nearly half of the combined cable news coverage. Fox also accounted for nearly half of the total climate mentions with 10. 

    The network’s coverage became increasingly unhinged as the magnitude of the danger became more evident. As Wednesday wore on, Fox’s coverage became rife with climate denial, attacks against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and health misinformation about the dangers of particulate matter.

    Across the other networks, coverage rightly focused on explaining the proximate causes of the wildfire smoke, as well as the health hazards of breathing it. But the majority of morning and afternoon cable news shows decided not to mention the climate connection. However, climate discussion did increase during primetime. For example, CNN’s Bill Weir, who appeared multiple times during primetime programming, again demonstrated the importance of having dedicated climate correspondents. During his segments on The Situation Room, Erin Burnett OutFront, and Anderson Cooper 360, Weir drew clear connections between climate change, the Canadian wildfires, and the subsequent wildfire smoke degrading the air for tens of millions of Americans along the East Coast.

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 7, 2023, episode of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360

  • After a few scattered mentions across the network earlier in the day, MSNBC primetime hosts Joy Reid of The ReidOut, Chris Hayes of All In, and Alex Wagner of Alex Wagner Tonight each used their host monologues to discuss the climate connection between the Canadian wildfires and wildfire smoke.

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 7, 2023, episode of MSNBC's Alex Wagner Tonight

  • In an era of year-round extreme weather, news networks must decide to make climate change a consistent part of their coverage

  • The smoke blanketing the East Coast originated from more than 400 active fires in Canada. It is causing some of the worst air quality levels in years because it contains fine particles that can harm the lungs and heart. Not only is this a significant public health threat, but it illustrates the myriad dangers posed by global heating, which is fueling more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires.

    Media Matters has called on national TV news to do better when covering the climate connection to extreme weather events. Canada’s wildfires, which have been burning since March, had received very little national TV news coverage until very recently. Even the most recent coverage of the wildfire smoke has been inconsistent in its discussion of climate change. 

    National TV news shows have an opportunity and an obligation to improve.

    Extreme weather events serve as undeniable reminders of the profound harms that human-induced global warming is causing our planet and our species. As visible manifestations of climate change, these moments capture the attention of viewers. This is another such moment.

  • This is why it is crucial for national TV news to draw clear connections between climate change and the wildfire smoke story. By improving their coverage around this pivotal event, which is significantly impacting the media and power centers of the United States, news networks can play a key role in increasing public awareness and understanding about climate change and its link to extreme weather events. This would not only empower individuals and communities to distinguish accurate information from misinformation, thereby reducing the spread and impact of climate change misinformation, but it could also generate public pressure on policymakers to prioritize climate action and drive meaningful change at the local, national, and global level.

  • 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, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel for any variation of either of the terms “wildfire” or “fire” or the term “smoke” on June 7, 2023.

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when Canadian wildfires or wildfire smoke were the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of the wildfires or smoke. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the wildfires or smoke 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 or smoke without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the host or anchor promoted a segment about the wildfires or smoke scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed the identified segments for mentions of climate change or global warming.