In 2019, PBS ran more segments on the climate crisis than ABC, CBS, and NBC combined.
PBS NewsHour has traditionally outperformed its broadcast counterparts in both the scope and depth of its climate coverage.
And 2019 is no different.
(Data in this post is taken from the Media Matters study “How broadcast TV networks covered climate change in 2019,” which examined news coverage of climate change on broadcast TV networks, counting and analyzing segments devoted to climate change.)
PBS ran more (and longer) segments on the climate crisis than ABC, CBS, and NBC combined.
PBS NewsHour aired 121 climate segments in 2019, or nearly 10 segments each month. That’s more climate segments than the nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired combined (116).
In addition to the amount of segments the program aired, the length and depth of coverage is equally telling of the show's growing commitment to climate reporting. A generous segment on climate by corporate nightly news shows lasted around three minutes, while a climate story on PBS averaged around eight minutes -- or more than double the length of its counterparts. (PBS NewsHour runs 60 minutes long, which is twice as long as its broadcast network counterparts. This allows more space and length for climate coverage.)
For example, a report, airing on March 27, on how some scientists are “exploring unorthodox means” of removing carbon from our atmosphere, ran for 8 minutes and 54 seconds. Another segment, airing on September 19, spent 8 minutes and 21 seconds detailing how climate change is intensifying weather systems like Harvey and Florence.
The longer segments not only signal the importance of the issue to audiences, but also allow PBS NewsHour to avoid shallow and vapid reporting (that often results from the frenetic pace of corporate broadcast news) in favor of storytelling that is enriched with multiple voices.
PBS is not just covering climate more than ABC, CBS, and NBC -- it’s covering it WAY better.
Beyond the amount and length of PBS NewsHour’s segments, the show’s climate coverage is notable for putting a face to the climate crisis, particularly by telling the stories of those already feeling the impacts of our overheated planet, both here and abroad.
From Iraqi wetlands to Honduran farmers to a Midwesterner community -- here is a small sample of the compelling climate change stories PBS NewsHour told in 2019:
Airing on March 13 (originally airing December 20, 2018), a segment reported from Iraq connected climate change to the dire water crisis affecting communities around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Water levels in the life-giving Tigris and Euphrates rivers have plummeted. The problem is that the water isn’t just low. It's also too salty. According to Al-Asadi, the reduced volume of water has caused salination to spike from 200 parts per million, as it was when he was a child here, to 1,800 parts per million today.
That means the water is not only killing the plant life, but also the water buffalo people here depend on. These cows provide cheese, milk, and meat to eat. For thousands of years, they simply drank the water all around them, but now it has become too salty and toxic for the buffalo, blinding them before they die.
Airing on April 2, a segment shot in Honduras covered the economic factors driving migration to the U.S. including “long-term drought, caused in part by climate change.”
For Don Alfredo, the decision to leave is more urgent. He and his wife are eating the last of their crop. And Catalina suffers from diabetes, which requires expensive medication.
He’s tried to leave before. In 2001, Don Alfredo hired a coyote to smuggle him into Arizona, surviving for over a week in the desert with no food, before being caught and deported. You are going to go through all of this again, without any guarantee that you will be able to stay?
On May 28, NewsHour went to Illinois to report on how increased flooding, due to climate change, is impacting Americans living near rivers and coasts -- and what some are doing to adapt to climate risks.
Today, a mile and a half away and 400 feet above the original town, is New Valmeyer, completed two years after the flood.
The relocation was made possible by the federal government. Since 1989, FEMA has provided $3.2 billion to states and local governments to buy nearly 46,000 properties in flood-prone areas. Once the homes are purchased, from willing owners at pre-flood appraisal prices, they must be demolished and turned into green space in perpetuity.
Many move away, but Valmeyer’s residents wanted to stay together, so they pooled their buyout money to purchase the town’s new land.
In addition to telling the stories of impacted communities, PBS’s climate coverage regularly features interviews representing multiple sources, perspectives, and expertise, while not falling into the trap of climate denial false equivalence. For example, the segment on the Honduran migration crisis (above) featured interviews with both a subsistence and a commercial farmer in the western part of the country and an agricultural engineer and cited research from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization to give a full and well-founded story about climate-driven migration.
A report on Antarctica’s rapidly declining ice, airing on April 10, featured comments from two glaciologists, a meteorologist, a professor of geosciences and international affairs, a representative from the National Science Foundation, and a representative from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
And the program’s climate segments are often anchored by the program’s science correspondent, Miles O’Brien. The show’s economic correspondent and chief arts correspondent, among others, also covered climate in 2019 from their areas of expertise, which demonstrates that NewsHour is embracing the fact that climate change is, increasingly, humming in the background of most stories.
Lastly, a fundamental of good climate coverage is connecting the climate crisis to extreme weather events. PBS NewsHour regularly outperforms its corporate counterparts in connecting the dots between the climate crisis and extreme weather events. And it also goes a step further, providing exceptional coverage by covering the impact of the events long after they have fallen off the front page.
On October 9, more than five weeks after Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas, PBS NewsHour returned to the islands to cover recovery efforts and further underscore the devastating impacts climate change is having on vulnerable communities.
These island nations are cannon fodder in the relentless invasion spurred by climate change, the first casualties in a war they didn't start.
When one storm can obliterate an island state or a number of states in one hurricane season, how will we survive?
Other indicators show that PBS is crushing ABC, CBS, and NBC on climate coverage.
PBS’ coverage is more diverse and solutions-driven than that of its corporate counterparts.
Media Matters’ annual broadcast study reviews coverage for mentions of, among other things, solutions to the crisis and examines whose views are expressed on issues related to climate change. PBS NewsHour featured women and minorities in climate change stories more often than the other major networks combined, interviewing or quoting 73 women and 34 people of color over the course of the year. In comparison, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and ABC's World News Tonight interviewed or quoted 34, 10, and eight women in climate stories, respectively. Guest segments on climate with people of color were even harder to find. CBS Evening News featured 12 people of color in these stories, NBC Nightly News interviewed or quoted only two people of color in climate coverage, and ABC's World News Tonight spoke to just one person of color on this topic.
In 2019, corporate broadcast TV news programs showed a slight improvement of coverage mentioning potential solutions to climate-related problems or actions to fight or prepare for climate change. Out of 116 total climate segments aired on ABC, CBS, and NBC, 34 of them -- 29%, up from 20% in 2018 -- mentioned solutions or responses to climate change. PBS NewsHour mentioned solutions in 51 of 121 segments -- 42%, which is slightly better than previous years. CBS Evening News also mentioned solutions in 35% of its climate segments, while NBC Nightly News mentioned solutions in 29% of segments, and ABC’s World News Tonight did so in a mere 13% of segments.
PBS NewsHour covered major drivers of climate news that the corporate nightly news programs ignored.
The ambitious Green New Deal, energetic climate activism, and the 2020 election were all important drivers of climate change coverage in 2019. Media Matters’ annual broadcast study examined how each of the corporate broadcast nightly news programs covered the major climate stories this past year. Here is how PBS NewsHour stacks up against its corporate counterparts.
The corporate nightly news programs made no mention of the Green New Deal in all of its 2019 coverage. PBS NewsHour mentioned the climate plan, which calls for the U.S. to be carbon neutral in 10 years, in 12 of its 121 segments, including a segment interviewing Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) on February 7, the day that he and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced Green New Deal resolutions to their respective chambers.
The corporate nightly news programs also largely failed to mention climate within the context of the elections, which for the first time in history had a candidate running on his commitment to climate action, doing so in just three of its 116 segments. PBS NewsHour mentioned climate during discussion of the elections in 23 segments (19%). The coverage included interviews with six candidates and a whole segment, which aired on June 6, dedicated to unpacking the Democratic candidates’ different plans to address the climate crisis.
ABC’s, CBS’, and NBC’s nightly news programs did discuss climate activism in 2019. Most of the 17 (of 116) climate segments that mentioned activism concentrated around youth climate activism, specifically focusing on Greta Thunberg and the climate strike movement she founded.
Much of PBS NewsHour’s coverage mentioning activism -- 20 of 121 segments -- also focused on the youth movement. However, NewsHour presented a more comprehensive view of the movement than did its counterparts, which largely ignored groups other than those associated with the climate strikes. PBS aired a segment on September 20 that featured a wide range of voices from the youth movement including three climate strike activists -- Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Villasenor and Xiye Bastida -- as well as Vic Barrett, a plaintiff in the landmark case Juliana v. the United States, a lawsuit filed by over a dozen young Americans alleging that the U.S. government has failed to adequately address climate change, and Katie Eder, who co-founded The Future Coalition, which organizes young people around issues including climate change.
PBS is the country’s most trusted source for news, an accolade that might start to matter.
The only issue with PBS NewsHour's climate coverage is that it is viewed by far fewer people than is the coverage of its corporate counterparts.
The corporate nightly news programs consistently pull in more viewers than PBS NewsHour. But that could change. In the months leading up to and following the 2016 election, NewsHour enjoyed a ratings spike, while the ratings at its peer programs at ABC, CBS, and NBC were down. A HuffPost article in March 2017 made the case that the proliferation of fake new sites and hyperpartisan reporting that went into overdrive around the elections drove new viewers to the program known for its “trustworthy and responsible look at the issues of the day.”
In fact, Americans have rated PBS as their most trusted source for news practically forever.
With the 2020 presidential race on the cusp of occupying the lion’s share of the media landscape, PBS’ “most trusted source” designation might actually start to pay off. And with it, the program’s high quality climate coverage could get the audience it deserves.