Andrea Austria / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

National TV news covered Trump’s buried climate assessment with gusto. Biden’s assessment barely made the air.

Coverage of the Fifth National Climate Assessment missed a key opportunity to highlight the report’s emphasis on climate justice and fossil fuel industry accountability

On November 14, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released the Fifth National Climate Assessment, which found that the United States is already experiencing severe impacts of rapid climate change, with a worsening outlook over the next decades, largely due to continued fossil fuel use. 

This report, which is mandated by Congress, underscores the inadequacy of the current efforts to reduce emissions in order to meet urgent national and global emissions targets, highlights the role of fossil fuels in exacerbating climate change, and urges robust action to mitigate the worst impacts of global warming. Additionally, the assessment places a strong emphasis on climate justice, recognizing the disproportionate effects of climate change on marginalized communities, including those shaped by racist practices like redlining and indigenous communities.

After a summer of record-breaking extreme weather events — from searing heat waves to torrential rains to raging wildfires and smoke plumes — the latest assessment presented national TV news with another opportunity to not only report on these events but also delve into two crucial but undercovered areas: fossil fuel industry accountability and climate justice.

Unfortunately, this opportunity was largely squandered. A Media Matters review found that national TV news outlets CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox News barely covered the report. The lackluster coverage starkly contrasts with the huge media focus the previous climate assessment drew in 2018, after former President Donald Trump tried to bury the report. 

Recognizing the sheer number of important stories dominating the current news cycle, the scant coverage of the climate report still emerges as a crucial oversight and it highlights the challenge of ensuring thorough and informed public dialogue on climate issues amidst a landscape of competing news priorities.

A Media Matters analysis from November 14, the day the report was released, through November 15 found:

  • National TV news networks aired just 30 minutes of combined coverage about the Fifth National Climate Assessment.
  • Major cable news networks — CNN and MSNBC — aired just 24 minutes of coverage about the report, with CNN airing the majority of coverage. Fox News did not cover the report at all.
  • Corporate broadcast networks — ABC and CBS — aired only 5 minutes about the report. NBC did not cover the report at all.
  • How national TV news outlets covered the Fifth National Climate Assessment

  • Reflecting on the paltry coverage of the latest National Climate Assessment, it's important to contrast this lack of reporting with the coverage of the previous National Climate Assessment released during the Trump administration. Former President Trump’s attempt to bury coverage of the Fourth National Climate Assessment by releasing it on Black Friday in November 2018 backfired, leading to widespread media attention. Media Matters observed that this coverage “was decidedly mixed -- some of it was good, some of it was awful -- but the good coverage appears to have outweighed the bad.”

    In stark contrast, the latest National Climate Assessment struggled to capture similar media attention. Its subdued presence in national TV news highlighted the media’s inconsistent approach to climate reporting and reinforced a troubling trend: the sporadic and often insufficient emphasis on vital climate topics in broadcast and cable news coverage.

    Corporate broadcast networks aired approximately 5 minutes of coverage about the report across 4 segments. CBS led with approximately 3 minutes across 2 segments, followed by ABC with 2 minutes across 2 segments. NBC did not air any coverage about the Fifth National Climate Assessment during the study period.

    Major cable news networks aired only 24 minutes of coverage across 7 segments. CNN led with 18 minutes across 5 segments, followed by MSNBC with 6 minutes across 2 segments. Fox News did not air any coverage about the latest climate assessment. 

    CNN's coverage — led by anchor and chief climate correspondent Bill Weir — delved into the report but also included a contentious angle: featuring Buffalo as a climate haven. This segment, which was prepackaged and aired across various shows on the network such as CNN This Morning and The Lead with Jake Tapper, could be seen as a misstep. 

    The notion of climate havens, such as Buffalo, conflicts with the increasingly evident reality that no area is entirely safe from the impacts of climate change. Recent extreme weather events, like the flooding in Vermont, exemplify the fact that these threats touch every corner of the planet, challenging the once-held belief in climate safe havens.

    Weir's coverage following President Joe Biden’s remarks on the report avoided amplifying such problematic narratives. In one segment, Weir detailed the report’s findings, underscored the responsibility of the fossil fuel industry, and emphasized the role renewable energy could play in mitigating the worst climate impacts. This reporting exemplified the kind of coverage that is necessary to articulate the complexities of the climate crisis.

  • Video file

    Citation From the November 14, 2023, episode of CNN News Central

  • The sparse coverage of the Fifth National Climate Assessment continues an unfortunate trend

  • The sparse coverage of the Fifth National Climate Assessment continues an unfortunate trend of corporate TV news giving short shrift to important climate stories. In April 2022, cable and broadcast news networks aired only 16 minutes of combined coverage about a dire report released by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which concluded that the time is “now or never” for humanity to phase out the use of fossil fuels to avoid catastrophic climate change. And this March, cable and broadcast news shows aired less than 15 minutes of combined coverage about another IPCC report which found the world is likely to surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the early 2030s unless there is a rapid and sustained curtailment of global carbon emissions.

    The lack of comprehensive coverage of the Fifth National Climate Assessment by broadcast and cable news outlets is more than another missed opportunity; it's a disservice to the public discourse on climate change. TV news media has a critical role to play in the fight against climate change: reporting on the realities of global warming, holding the fossil fuel industry accountable, and detailing viable and equitable solutions to mitigate the worst impacts. Unfortunately, this trend of underreporting does not just hamper the public’s understanding; it also stymies the collective action necessary to address the climate crisis.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on cable news networks CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel as well as 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 either of the terms “climate” or “warming” within close proximity of any of the terms “report,” “study,” or “assessment” from November 14, 2023, when the Fifth National Climate Assessment was released, through November 15, 2023.

    We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the Fifth National Climate Assessment was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the report. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the Fifth National Climate Assessment with one another.

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

    We rounded all times to the nearest minute.