During coverage of the recent catastrophic flooding across the Northeast, major TV news networks mostly largely ignored clear climate signals linking the historic extreme weather event to global warming.
Over a three-day period from July 9-12, a Media Matters analysis found:
- National TV news broadcasters — ABC, CBS, and NBC — and major cable news networks — CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News — covered the Northeast flood event for more than 5 hours and 41 minutes across 171 segments.
- Only 10% of the 171 segments and weathercasts about the Northeast flood event across national TV news mentioned the role climate change played in the flooding.
- Major cable news networks – CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC – aired 4 hours and 27 minutes of coverage across 121 segments or weathercasts about the Northeast flooding, and 16 segments mentioned climate change. MSNBC mentioned the connection between the extreme flooding and climate change 10 times, and CNN mentioned it 6. (Fox’s coverage mentioned climate change once to deny the role it played in the flooding, hence it was excluded from the final tally.)
- Corporate broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC – aired a combined 1 hour and 14 minutes across 50 segments or weathercasts that discussed the Northeast flooding, but only 1 segment mentioned climate change. ABC was the only broadcast network to mention the connection between Northeast flooding and climate change.
The Northeast flood event, driven by global warming, was historic and unprecedented
The onslaught of heat followed by relentless rain and subsequent flooding that swept the Northeast this week demonstrated the destructive power of climate-driven extreme weather. Describing the confluence of factors that contributed to the 1,000-year flood event, Vermont state climatologist Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux told Vermont Public Radio, “We had practically every way that you could have rainfall getting generated, all taking place and sort of sitting over us.”
A lot of the air for the last few days was actually coming from the Atlantic Ocean. Again, as a climatologist, I'm looking at these water vapor maps, and I'm seeing these nice plumes coming up from the ocean over us continually, and bringing all that that moisture towards us.
Part of the fingerprint of climate change is where the heat from the air goes — and some of it goes into the oceans and causes the oceans to warm up, which means they evaporate more, which means more moisture back into the air.
So when you hear scientists talk about a feedback loop, it's that warming, causing heating of the ocean, which causes them to evaporate more, which then causes the air to hold more moisture.
As a result of the rain and flooding, homes and businesses were destroyed across the region, and at least one death was reported in both New York and Vermont. This tragic spectacle wasn’t a natural disaster; it was just one of multiple climate-driven extreme weather events gripping the country.
Whether it’s an unrelenting heat wave in the Southwest, Canadian wildfire smoke, or record high water temperatures along Florida’s coast, these events are a chilling preview of a new reality where lethal and financially crippling climate change-driven extreme events are an alarmingly frequent part of our lives.
National TV news continues to cover extreme weather as discrete events, missing the larger climate story
Few national TV news segments connected the Northeast flooding to climate change. Not only must this improve, but they must also connect these ostensibly discrete climate events to each other via global warming.
During the July 10 episode of ABC’s World News Tonight, chief meteorologist and managing editor of ABC’s climate unit Ginger Zee clearly explained the rarity of 1,000-year floods and why climate scientists believe these events will become more common in the future.
On cable news, the two most notable climate segments both featured climate scientist Michael Mann.
During his appearances on the July 10 episode of CNN News Central and the July 11 episode of MSNBC’s Katy Tur Live, Mann described how global warming is driving the seemingly disparate extreme weather events across the country, including the Northeast flooding, connected the burning of fossil fuels to climate change, and discussed potential solutions to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change.
Other notable segments include the July 12 episode of CNN’s Early Start, which used the National Climate Assessment to detail why extreme flooding events are becoming more frequent and devastating; the July 12 episode of MSNBC’s All In; and the July 11 episode of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show. Both MSNBC hosts did a strong job connecting the Northeast flooding to the multiple concurrent extreme weather events via climate change.
These notable exceptions aside, national TV news’ persistent habit of treating extreme weather events as singular disasters glosses over their shared, larger culprit: global warming. In failing to consistently draw this connection, national TV news broadcasters and major cable news networks undermine the urgency of our escalating global climate crisis.
Major news networks have missed crucial opportunities to enhance climate change awareness throughout the year.
A record-breaking heat wave that gripped large swaths of Asia from April to May, which was described by climatologist and weather historian Maximiliano Herrera as the “worst April heat wave in Asian history,” received little to no coverage from national TV news.
Broadcast and cable news covered a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, which broke records in Oregon and Washington, for only a combined 9 minutes from May 13-15. None of the reporting mentioned climate change.
More recently, only 17% of all mainstream cable and corporate broadcast news segments aired on June 7 about the Canadian wildfire smoke that blanketed the East Coast mentioned climate change.
And only 5% of national TV news segments on the record-shattering heat wave that scorched Texas mentioned climate change.
The ramifications of these oversights in national TV news coverage are becoming increasingly dire as the consequences of unmitigated climate change continue to manifest. By refusing to consistently and explicitly link extreme weather events to each other via climate change, broadcast and cable news shows are essentially treating these incidents as anomalies rather than recognizing them as part of a broader, alarming trend.
This disconnect can substantially undermine the public’s understanding of how extreme weather events are driven by global warming, obscure the industries driving climate change, and tamp down demands for collective action.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Snapstream video database for 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 the terms “Northeast,” “New York,” “Vermont,” or “New England” in close proximity to any variation of the terms “flood” or “rain” from July 9, 2023, through July 12, 2023.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the flooding in the Northeast 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 weather reports, which we defined as instances when the Northeast flooding was the stated topic of discussion by a meteorologist.
We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the Northeast flooding without another speaker in the segment engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the host or anchor promoted a segment about the Northeast flooding scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We then reviewed all identified segments and weather reports for mentions of the terms “climate” or “global warming.”