Media Matters / Andrea Austria

Research/Study Research/Study

National TV news show little curiosity about how climate change fueled record-breaking extreme weather over Memorial Day weekend

Over Memorial Day weekend, a series of devastating extreme weather events across America – from deadly storms and tornadoes to record-shattering heat waves – continued a trend of escalating weather extremes, which has been observed both nationally and globally this year. These events are not isolated incidents; as Media Matters noted earlier in May, the world has already experienced a string of record-breaking extreme weather events in 2024, and experts predict this trend will continue in the coming months

The urgency of the situation demands a more comprehensive response from national TV news, which has thus far failed to consistently connect extreme weather to the rapidly escalating climate crisis and its increasingly devastating impacts.

  • Topline findings

  • In a review of coverage of these concurrent extreme weather events from May 23, when national news began reporting on the upcoming weekend weather, through May 30, Media Matters found:

    • Cable news networks — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC — aired a combined 448 minutes across 198 segments about extreme weather events.
    • Corporate broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 93 minutes across 66 segments about extreme weather events.
    • Only 2 segments in the study, which both aired on MSNBC, referenced climate change.
  • How national TV news covered the record-breaking extreme weather events over Memorial Day

  • Reporting on extreme weather events during Memorial Day weekend dominated national news broadcasts. Severe storms, including tornadoes, swept the Midwest and East Coast, causing travel disruptions for millions of Americans and at least 23 fatalities in the South. The storms also left hundreds of thousands without power.

    Simultaneously, a late-spring heatwave shattered temperature records across the South, primarily affecting Texas and Florida. Numerous cities experienced unprecedented highs, with some exceeding previous records by substantial margins, in some cases while residents were without power. Forecasters issued warnings for residents to seek shelter in air-conditioned spaces and avoid strenuous outdoor activities, as the heatwave persisted for several days after the holiday weekend.

    As is typical with devastating weather events, national TV news provided extensive coverage of the Memorial Day weekend extremes. On cable, CNN aired 230 minutes across 87 segments, followed by Fox News with 136 minutes across 78 segments, and MSNBC with 83 minutes across 33 segments.

    Broadcast networks also dedicated significant airtime to extreme weather, with NBC airing 40 minutes across 25 segments, followed by ABC with 28 minutes across 25 segments, and CBS with 25 minutes across 16 segments.

    Despite the substantial quantity of coverage, the vast majority of segments failed to mention the connection between these extreme weather events and climate change.

    MSNBC's Chris Jansing Reports was one of the only shows to raise this crucial link during a segment aired on May 24. During an interview with tornado expert Mark Fox, Fox acknowledged the increased frequency of tornado warnings this year but stated that the data linking climate change to tornado frequency and intensity remains inconclusive. However, he did note that climate data suggests a potential increase in off-season tornadoes and emphasized the need to continue prioritizing public safety during the ongoing storm season.

    Similarly, the May 25 edition of MSNBC's Alex Witt Reports explored the connection between extreme heat and the climate crisis. During a segment on the record-breaking heatwave in Florida and Texas, NBC climate reporter Denise Chow explained how global warming is influencing extreme heat events, making them “more frequent, more intense, and longer-lasting.”

    Despite national TV news networks’ apparent reluctance to explicitly link the holiday weekend’s severe weather to climate change, some of these same news programs discussed other climate-related issues such as increased turbulence during air travel and NOAA's predictions for a very active hurricane season during the studied period. This demonstrates a disconnect in climate reporting, where some impacts of climate change are put in context, while others — like extreme weather — are reported without any relevant context about the climate crisis. 

    The recent spate of severe weather across the Midwest and eastern U.S., marked by its unusual intensity and timing, exemplifies what climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe terms “global weirding.” This phenomenon, driven by climate change, is characterized by more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns. As Hayhoe says, “Climate change is loading the weather dice against us,” which means it is crucial for broadcasters to address potential climate connections in their reporting, even before definitive scientific attribution studies are available.

    Case in point is the interview with Mark Fox on MSNBC's Chris Jansing Reports. While the segment focused on the immediate challenges of the current storm season, Fox acknowledged the increased frequency of tornado warnings this year and discussed the potential influence of climate change on tornado patterns. This is an example of how broadcasters can explore climate connections in real time, even when the specific link between a weather event and climate change has yet to be fully established by scientists.

    However, the broader trend in national TV news coverage is still one of omission. The vast majority of national TV news segments about the extreme weather over Memorial Day Weekend failed to mention climate change, despite a consensus in the scientific community that global warming is a major driver of these events. This disconnect between the reality of the climate crisis and its coverage in the media is detrimental to the public’s understanding and preparedness.

  • National TV news must cover the climate angle of extreme weather

  • Extreme weather events receive a lot of coverage, and they’re happening more frequently every year. This presents a crucial opportunity: Corporate broadcast and cable news networks must commit to a more climate-conscious approach in their extreme weather coverage. They have a responsibility to consistently link extreme weather events to climate change in order to clarify the causal relationship between them, to provide more extensive coverage of global extreme weather events, and to cover extreme weather as a year-round phenomenon, not just during peak seasons or when disasters strike on U.S. soil.

    As we head into what scientists predict will be another record-breaking extreme weather season, it is imperative for national TV news to step up and provide the public with accurate, informative, and contextualized reporting on the climate crisis. The stakes are simply too high to continue ignoring the most important story of our time.

  • 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, NBC’s Today and Nightly News as well as all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “weather,” “meteorologist,” “Illinois,” “Wisconsin,” “Iowa,” “Texas,” “New York,” “Kentucky,” “Arkansas,” “Oklahoma,” “Memorial Day,” or “holiday” within close proximity of either of the terms “extreme” or “severe” or any variations of any of the terms “storm,” “tornado,” “rain,” “flood,” “heat,” or “hail” from May 23, 2024, when local media first reported the likelihood of severe weather over the Memorial Day weekend, through May 30, 2024.

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

    We did not include mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned an extreme weather event without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about extreme weather scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed each segment for whether any speaker mentioned climate change or global warming.

    We rounded all times to the nearest minute.