2020 Heat Wave
Melissa Joskow

Research/Study Research/Study

National TV news largely ignored the climate connection during coverage of the recent extreme heat event

12% of segments across national TV news connected the Southwest heat wave to climate change

The recent extreme heat event that swept across the U.S. Southwest in early June — the first major heat wave of the year, which was made three times more likely because of climate change — served as a stark reminder of the escalating climate crisis. It also demonstrated the urgent need for national TV news coverage that consistently connects extreme weather to human-caused climate change.

Yet corporate broadcast and cable news shows largely ignored the climate connection in their coverage, and they missed other crucial opportunities as well: to connect the heat wave to recent climate attribution studies, to spotlight extreme heat’s impact on vulnerable populations, and to inform viewers about the climate implications of the 2024 election.

  • Topline findings

  • A Media Matters review of national TV news coverage of the extreme heat wave from June 4-9 found:

    • National TV news networks covered the extreme heat event for 167 minutes across 97 segments. Climate change was mentioned in only 12% (12) segments.
    • Cable news networks — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC — aired a combined 114 minutes across 54 segments about the extreme heat event. Climate change was mentioned in 5 segments.
    • Corporate broadcast TV networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 54 minutes across 43 segments about the extreme heat event. Climate change was mentioned in 7 segments.
    • CBS performed the best among all networks, airing as many segments that connected the heat to climate change as the three cable news networks combined. Nearly half of its total segments (12) included a mention of climate change (5).
    • Only 4 climate segments also included a mention of how the extreme heat event could impact a socially marginalized population.
  • How national TV news covered 2024’s first major extreme heat event

  • The first major heat wave of 2024 set records for high temperatures across California and the Southwest, while creating significant health hazards for millions. The dangerous heat also impacted notable political events, such as former President Donald Trump's rallies in Arizona and Nevada, where multiple attendees at both events required medical attention for various heat-related conditions.

    National TV news networks aired extensive coverage of the heat wave, as they typically do for highly visible extreme weather events. Multiple segments highlighted the anomalous and record-breaking nature of the heat wave, yet the coverage failed to consistently connect the event to climate change, despite the clear and robust connection between extreme heat and global warming

    On cable, CNN devoted 53 minutes to the extreme heat event across 25 segments, with 2 segments mentioning climate change. MSNBC aired 46 minutes of coverage across 16 segments, with 3 segments that mentioned climate change. And Fox News aired 15 minutes across 13 segments, without any mention of climate change.

    On the corporate broadcast networks, CBS aired 16 minutes across 12 segments, with 5 segments mentioning climate change. NBC aired 27 minutes across 17 segments, with 1 segment that mentioned climate change. And ABC aired 11 minutes across 14 segments, with 1 segment that mentioned climate change.

    While national TV news largely failed to connect the extreme heat to global warming, there were a few notable segments that made the connection between climate change and its consequences such as extreme heat.

    Some of those came on the June 7 episode of NBC Nightly News and the June 9 episode of MSNBC’s Alex Witt Reports. The latter featured a wide-ranging interview about the causes and effects of the heat wave with climate scientist Kim Cobb, who also called for fossil fuel accountability.

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 9, 2024, episode of MSNBC's Alex Witt Reports

  • National TV news shows also missed key opportunities to provide deeper context about the extreme heat event.

  • National TV news shows missed key opportunities to contextualize the extreme heat event

  • Missed opportunity to discuss the impact of extreme heat events on vulnerable populations

    National TV news coverage of the extreme heat event largely failed to report on how these events disproportionately harm vulnerable populations such as the elderly, low-income communities, and laborers, among others. This lack of coverage overlooks the real-world consequences of inadequate climate action.

    However, there were some notable segments that did report on how extreme heat harms vulnerable communities. One of the strongest segments that aired during the studied period was on the June 6 episode of MSNBC's Chris Jansing Reports, which featured interviews with Basil Smikle, director of the Roosevelt House Institute of Public Policy at Hunter College and author and climate reporter Jeff Goodell, among others. 

    The segment detailed the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable populations, particularly communities of color, low-income families, and the imprisoned, and emphasized the urgent need for a climate justice approach that is responsive to these communities’ specific challenges.

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 6, 2024, episode of MSNBC's Chris Jansing Reports

  • The June 8 episode of CBS Saturday Morning explained that some scientists are reassessing the heat index to more accurately ascertain how heat and humidity damages the human body and the impact of extreme heat on vulnerable populations such as the elderly. The segment highlighted the need for a better understanding of the damaging effects of heat and humidity, as well as the need for stronger policies to protect the vulnerable, with the key message being, “We can do better for our seniors.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 8, 2024, episode of CBS Saturday Morning

  • Missed opportunity to incorporate recent climate attribution studies into extreme heat coverage

    National TV news shows missed an opportunity to incorporate climate into their extreme heat coverage, despite findings that clearly link global warming to the exacerbation of extreme heat events and increased mortality rates. Notably, research from Climate Central indicated that the heat wave from June 5-7, which affected over 229 million people across North America, was made at least three times more likely by human-caused climate change. 

    This crucial scientific context, while referenced during the June 4 episode of CBS Evening News and the June 5 episode of ABC’s Good Morning America, was largely absent from the coverage, leaving viewers without a full understanding about the direct link between climate change and the heat wave they were experiencing.

    Missed opportunity to connect climate change impacts to the 2024 election

    National TV news largely failed to connect Trump’s campaign rhetoric and climate policy actions to the tangible impacts of climate change, notably during coverage of his rallies in Arizona and Las Vegas where attendees required medical treatment due to extreme heat

    The Trump administration rolled back environmental protections, and he has promised to reverse Biden administration climate actions in exchange for fossil fuel industry campaign donations, as well as mocked those harmed by climate change impacts. But TV news coverage did not effectively link these policies and actions to the immediate and severe consequences of extreme heat at his events. 

    It's essential for national TV news to provide this context, as informed voting on climate policies is crucial, especially in regions that are increasingly experiencing the consequences of climate change.

    Notable segments that attempted to address this angle included the June 5 episode of CNN’s The Lead, where climate correspondent Bill Weir used the occasion of extreme heat to note the harmful climate implications of Trump’s climate policies and his attempted quid pro quo with the fossil fuel industry, and the June 9 episode of MSNBC’s PoliticsNation, which mentioned Trump's climate denial in the context of people passing out at his Arizona and Las Vegas rallies.

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 9, 2024, episode of MSNBC's PoliticsNation

  • How national TV news can improve its coverage during discrete extreme weather events

  • National TV news networks can implement several strategies to provide audiences with a more comprehensive understanding of how climate-driven extreme weather impacts their lives:

    Tell extreme weather stories through a climate lens

    Coverage should consistently explore whether and how climate change may have influenced specific weather events, addressing the impact global warming has on these occurrences.

    Contextualize extreme weather events

    Networks should strive to connect individual extreme weather events to the broader narrative of the global climate crisis. This approach helps illustrate the cumulative effects of climate change and the urgent need for action.

    Incorporate climate justice

    When covering extreme weather, TV news media must discuss climate justice, which focuses on the disproportionate effects of climate change on socially marginalized communities. These impacts often manifest most acutely during extreme weather events.

    Link extreme weather events to the 2024 election

    It is crucial for coverage to show the relationship between extreme weather events, climate change, and candidates’ political platforms. This helps voters understand how candidates' policies might or might not mitigate future climate-related challenges.

    Demand accountability from the fossil fuel industry

    Broadcast and cable news networks must consistently hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for its significant role in driving global warming. This includes discussing how industry actions contribute to climate change and highlighting the environmental and social consequences of their operations.

  • 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, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “Arizona,” “California,” “Nevada,” “Texas” “Las Vegas,” “Phoenix,” “Death Valley,” or “San Antonio” or any variations of either of the terms “south” or “west” within close proximity of any of the terms “heat,” “heat wave,” “heat dome,” “hot,” “hotter,” “hottest,” or “temperature” from June 4, 2024, when cities across the U.S. Southwest and West issued extreme heat warnings, through June 9, 2024.

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when the extreme heat event was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the event. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the event 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 event without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the event scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed the identified segments for whether they mentioned climate change or global warming.