National TV news coverage of Pakistan’s historic, devastating flooding largely lacked depth and urgency
After months of monsoon rains, which have killed more than 1,000 people and displaced more than 30 million, the government of Pakistan declared a state of emergency on August 25. Since then, from August 25 through September 15, corporate broadcast morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, and all original programming on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News covered the climate-fueled flooding disaster for a total of nearly 2 hours and 23 minutes of coverage across 78 segments. Climate change was mentioned in 35 segments.
Though national TV news did somewhat consistently acknowledge how climate change contributed to the worsened monsoon flooding plaguing Pakistan, the coverage was lacking in quantity and quality and illustrated how news coverage of global extreme weather events still largely silos these events. Pakistan’s flooding occurred during a summer that saw other historic extreme weather events including deadly flooding in Kentucky, record heat in the Western United States, and myriad other events across the globe. But rarely did the reporting detail how these extreme climate events are connected and driven by the continued burning of fossil fuels.
Broadcast news coverage of the historic flooding in Pakistan was paltry
Considering the scale of the flooding crisis in Pakistan, broadcast news coverage was paltry. From August 25 through September 15, broadcast news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC covered the story for a total of nearly 7 minutes across 9 segments. Climate change was mentioned in 4 of those segments. ABC aired nearly 3 minutes of coverage across 2 segments, followed by CBS with nearly 2 minutes across 5 segments, and NBC with nearly 2 minutes across 1 segment. ABC mentioned climate change twice, and CBS and NBC each had one mention.
Among cable news networks, CNN was the clear leader in quality and quantity
Many of the climate change mentions on broadcast and cable were brief statements about how global warming contributed to devastating monsoon flooding. It is crucial for news shows to recognize the role climate change played in an extreme weather event, but to truly meet the moment of this crisis, national TV news shows must also tell a more complete story about how these extreme weather events are connected to each other and are driven by our continued reliance on fossil fuels.
Although the coverage was paltry, 2 hours and 23 minutes total over a three-week period, with a precipitous drop after August 31, there were some segments that provided important context, explaining that Pakistan’s monsoon floods are connected to other extreme climate events. Other strong segments mentioned the growing frustration among Pakistani government officials, as well as other international leaders, with how Western countries continue to drive an escalating climate crisis, while poor countries like Pakistan suffer disproportionate harm.
The September 2 episode of CNN Tonight aired a strong segment that detailed how extreme heat and precipitation around the world are linked by climate change. The segment also explained why Pakistan’s unique geography makes the country extremely vulnerable to climate impacts. In a voiceover concluding the segment, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain observed, “Climate change truly is a global problem that is going to require global solutions. But increasingly, around the world and in the United States, we're seeing a growing link between climate change and many types of these extreme weather events, particularly those that are related to extreme heat or extremely heavy precipitation.”
The September 4 episode of MSNBC’s The Mehdi Hasan Show featured a monologue from Hasan that connected extreme climate events across the globe to climate change and detailed how Republican Party intransigence hinders efforts to find a political solution to the climate crisis.
During the September 9 episode of CNN’s New Day, correspondent Clarissa Ward noted that Pakistan emits less than 1% of global emissions but is suffering disproportionate harm from climate impacts such as flooding. She also shared that the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is demanding climate reparations from rich Western countries on behalf of poor, non-Western nations and wants to see international cooperation on climate solutions.
National TV news coverage of Pakistan’s flooding mirrored its poor coverage of other extreme climate events across the globe
National TV news coverage of the historic flooding in Pakistan represents a slight improvement over past reporting, because national TV news rarely covers extreme weather events in non-Western countries. This includes the recent record-shattering heat wave in China, a four-year drought in Madagascar, and the 2020 Arctic heat wave. And when broadcast and cable news shows do report on global extreme weather events, climate change is not consistently part of the story, as demonstrated by coverage of the 2022 European heat wave and the 2020 Australian bushfires.
It should not take a climate-fueled disaster like the one unfolding in Pakistan to command even slight media attention and a more consistent connection to climate change. Media Matters has called upon national TV news to cover extreme weather as a year-round phenomenon, but news shows are still falling far short of what the current moment demands; instead of siloing these stories, national TV news shows should be weaving them together.
Pakistan’s record flooding is an example of the climate-fueled disasters that will become more frequent and devastating in a warming world
The scale of the disaster in Pakistan is hard to fathom: Approximately 1,500 people have died, and more than 33 million others have been displaced by devastating, record-shattering monsoon flooding. Two weeks ago, nearly a third of the country was underwater. A recently published attribution study found that Pakistan’s floods were likely made worse by global warming. According to The New York Times:
But Pakistan’s monsoon rains have long varied wildly from year to year, which made it hard to pin down precisely how much more severe this season was because of climate change, the authors of the new study said. Still, most of their computer models indicated that human-caused warming had intensified the rainfall to some extent, convincing them that it was a contributing factor.
The country might have experienced disastrously high rainfall this year even without global warming, said the study’s lead author, Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London. “But it’s worse because of climate change,” Dr. Otto said. “And especially in these highly vulnerable regions, small changes matter a lot.”
Members of the Pakistani government, as well as the United Nations secretary-general, have leveled explicit critiques at Western nations that have reaped the benefits of fossil fuel economies while driving the climate crisis and leaving poor nations such as Pakistan to suffer the consequences. Although the issue of climate reparations to poor countries is still controversial among world leaders and climate policy experts, it must become part of news media’s extreme weather coverage, especially as extreme climate events become more frequent and intense in the future. As The Conversation wrote:
Pakistan omits less than one per cent of global emissions but is among the top 10 countries most affected by climate change. The Pakistani Minister of Climate Change has argued that wealthier countries owe reparations to countries facing climate disaster.
Climate reparations were a contentious issue at the COP26 summit in Glasgow last year. The U.S. and EU opposed climate reparations.
While climate reparations from the global north may assist Pakistan in recovering from the current crisis, structural change is needed to prepare the country for the next climate catastrophe. This requires substantial investments in climate-resilient infrastructure and poverty reduction.
How national TV news can improve its cycle of shallow extreme-weather coverage
The global fossil fuel industry is driving extreme climate events by emitting tons of carbon into the atmosphere, while also polluting the land, air, and water of communities across the world. Meanwhile, rich Western nations are reluctant to begin an immediate transition away from the fossil fuel economy or provide non-Western countries with adequate resources to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change and industrial pollution.
National TV news must consistently inform viewers that climate change is driving year-round, catastrophic extreme weather events, that the burning of fossil fuels will lead to runaway climate change, and that the fossil fuel industry is opposing urgently needed actions that could stave off the worst consequences — even as the window for meaningful climate action rapidly closes.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Snapstream video database for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press as well as all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for the term “Pakistan” in close proximity to any variation of either of the terms “flood” or “rain” from August 25, 2022, through September 15, 2022.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the flooding in Pakistan was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion about the flooding. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the flooding with one another.
We also included headline reports, which we defined as instances when an anchor, host, or correspondent read a short news report about the flooding in rapid succession with several unrelated stories.We excluded mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker mentioned the flooding without another speaker engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the flooding scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We rounded all times to the nearest minute.
We then reviewed each segment, mention, and teaser for mentions of the terms “climate” or “global warming.”