Research/Study Research/Study

Sunday morning political shows' coverage of climate in 2019 was mostly narrow, cynical, and uninformative

In 2020, Sunday shows must report on the climate crisis as a political problem that demands political solutions

Only 11% of episodes of the five major Sunday morning news shows featured any substantive mentions or discussions of climate change in 2019, according to a Media Matters analysis, continuing the Sunday shows’ multiyear trend of neglecting the climate crisis. When these shows actually did discuss climate-related topics, the hosts often focused solely on the potential political ramifications for Democrats and Republicans or framed the discussions around conservative talking points about the costs of climate action.

The major Sunday shows also continued a trend of failing to adequately represent minorities, women, and scientists in discussions about climate change.

Media Matters analyzed climate change coverage and guest appearances in 2019 on the five major Sunday morning political shows: ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS’ Face the Nation, CNN’s State of the Union, Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday, and NBC’s Meet the Press.

The Sunday morning news shows help set the weekly media and political agenda for politicians, pundits, and other media figures. And, with a combined audience of more than 10 million viewers, Sunday shows have wide viewership. As such, they play a crucial role in determining which issues and whose voices are included in the national dialogue.

  • Key Findings

    • Only 11% of episodes of the major Sunday shows in 2019 featured significant discussion of climate change.

    • Sunday shows ran 30 segments during 27 episodes that included substantial mentions of climate change in 2019, three more segments than they did in 2018 (27 segments) and one less than they aired in 2017 (31 segments).

    • Only 20% of guests featured during climate-focused segments in 2019 were people of color -- eight out of 40 guests total.

    • Only 20% of guests featured in climate-focused discussions in 2019 were women.

    • No scientists were included in climate-related segments on the Sunday shows in 2019.

  • Major Sunday shows barely covered climate in 2019

    Twenty-seven of the 256 episodes aired by the five major Sunday shows in 2019 made significant mention of climate change, or just 11%. This is an increase from 2018, when only 14 of them made significant mention of climate change -- less than 6%.

  • sundayshows2019--Climate segments in 2019
  • Not only did the Sunday morning political shows air few climate segments in 2019, but there were months when they featured little to no climate discussions.

  • sundayshows2019--Number of combined segments aired each Sunday .png
  • Individual shows often went months at a time without featuring a substantive climate discussion.

    ABC’s This Week aired only five climate segments in 2019 and didn’t air a single climate segment in seven out of 12 months. In fact, This Week didn’t air a significant climate segment at all in the last four months of 2019.

  • sundayshows2019--ABC climate segments.png
  • CBS’ Face the Nation aired only six climate segments in 2019 and didn’t air a single climate segment in eight out of 12 months.

  • sundayshows2019--CBS climate segments.png
  • NBC’s Meet the Press aired only eight climate segments in 2019 and didn’t air a single climate segment in seven out of 12 months.

  • sundayshows2019--NBC climate segments.png
  • Fox News Sunday aired only four climate segments in 2019 and didn’t air any climate segment in nine out of 12 months. The show failed to air a single substantive climate discussion in the last six months of 2019.

  • CNN’s State of the Union aired only seven climate segments in 2019 and didn’t air a single climate segment in eight out of 12 months.

  • sundayshows2019--CNN climate segment.png
  • Sunday shows' climate coverage in 2019 included few women or minorities and no scientists

  • Even the few substantive climate conversations aired by the major Sunday shows lacked demographic diversity and were dominated by political commentators, not scientists.

  • sundayshows2019-guestspiechart-amended3-5-20
  • Women were 20% of Sunday show guests in climate-related segments in 2019

    Only eight of 40 guests who participated in substantive climate discussions in 2019 were women, or 20%. Meet the Press led with five women guests in its climate segments, Face the Nation followed with two, and Fox News Sunday had one. Neither This Week nor State of the Union featured a woman guest during any of their climate-related segments. This is a dramatic drop from 2018, when women represented nearly 40% of guests in climate-related segments.

  • sundayshows2019--Women were underrepresented.png
  • People of color were 20% of Sunday show guests in climate-related segments in 2019

    Of the 40 guests featured during climate-focused segments in 2019, just eight were people of color, or 20%. This is a slight improvement from 2018, when only six out of 35 guests in climate segments were people of color, or 17%.

  • sundayshows2019--POCS were underrepresented.png
  • Sunday shows featured no scientists in climate-related segments in 2019

    The five major Sunday shows all failed to feature a single scientist during a climate segment in 2019. This is the fourth year out of the last five that the Sunday shows have failed to feature a scientist in climate discussions. The vast majority of Sunday show guests in climate discussions during 2019 were politicians, pundits, political operatives, or political journalists, which contributed to another major problem with the focus and framing of Sunday morning shows’ climate coverage.

  • Sunday morning political shows’ discussions of climate were often narrow and fundamentally downplayed the scale of the challenge

  • The lack of diversity among guests featured in climate coverage on major Sunday morning political shows is compounded when the few segments they do air discuss climate only through a narrow political lens or adopt a conservative framing of climate solutions -- while also routinely failing to report on how climate change is driving extreme weather or that the Trump administration continues to push its harmful environmental rollbacks. Because climate conversations in 2019 were dominated by partisan political commentators who discussed climate as an intractable problem with mainly electoral consequences, viewers may have come away from these conversations not only feeling less informed, but also feeling helpless and hopeless. 

    According to a 2015 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, research shows that “news about climate politics, not climate science, likely has far greater impact on how people think, feel and act with respect to climate change”: 

  • When climate politics and policies are portrayed as the exclusive domain of national and global elites, little space is left for individuals to engage as anything but cynical and apathetic spectators. Persistent and one-dimensional emphasis upon the failures of existing economic and political institutions ultimately frames the totality of climate politics as nothing more than a futile and hopeless exercise, and it positions climate change as fundamentally irresolvable.

  • The next section examines the quality of major Sunday morning political shows’ coverage of three of the major climate stories in 2019 and their intersections with politics: the Green New Deal, the Democratic presidential primary, and youth climate activism.

  • The Green New Deal

    The Green New Deal, introduced in February 2019 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), is the most ambitious climate plan ever introduced in the United States. Rather than report on how the Green New Deal was developed with a broad array of environmental groups, environmental justice organizations, and labor unions to comprehensively mitigate the worst consequences of the climate crisis, Sunday show hosts often repeated and amplified conservative narratives about its proposals supposedly being “socialist” and “radical” -- labels which they then used to dismiss the resolution as politically untenable and unserious. 

    The Green New Deal was mentioned in 40% of climate segments on the Sunday shows in 2019, and nearly all of the segments narrowly focused on the potential political ramifications for Democrats and Republicans instead of whether the resolution contains worthy ideas for addressing climate change.

  • Video file

    Citation From the April 14, 2019, episode of ABC’s This Week:

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (CO-HOST): You support the Green New Deal. You support “Medicare for All.” We heard the Senate Republican leader this week, Mitch McConnell, say they're going to make the election a referendum on socialism. Are you worried that policies like that will make Democrats vulnerable?


  • Video file

    Citation From the February 17, 2019, episode of NBC’s Meet the Press:

    CHUCK TODD (HOST): I want to put out some headlines, recent headlines, that sort of get at this new divide inside the Democratic Party, or at least a more exposed divide. ... The New Yorker, not exactly a conservative bastion: “With the Green New Deal, Democrats present a radical proposition for combating climate change.” ... Are you concerned the perception of the Democratic Party is going to move too far to the left in order to scare away those swing voters that you’ve won over to win control of the House?

  • Video file

    Citation From the February 10, 2019, episode of CNN’s State of the Union:

    JAKE TAPPER (HOST): You co-sponsored a resolution outlining a Green New Deal in the Senate this week that calls for a sweeping overhaul of the entire U.S. economy in 10 years by, quote, meeting 100% of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable and zero emission energy sources.” A fellow senator who caucuses with the Democrats, independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, as well as Obama former energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, say they don't think that this plan is realistic.

  • Sunday morning political shows weren't the only programs that dropped the ball on the Green New Deal; the nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired no segments about the Green New Deal in 2019 and made only one passing mention of it. The absence of quality Green New Deal coverage left by other corporate TV news outlets was promptly filled by right-wing disinformers like Fox News. Not only did Fox News air far more prime-time segments about the Green New Deal resolution than other broadcast and cable TV news shows, but less than half of the conservative network’s segments even mentioned the climate crisis. Instead, Fox aired several segments that lied about proposals in the Green New Deal and tried to paint it as an instance of supposed Democratic extremism. In March 2019, Fox also hyped a deeply flawed analysis of the Green New Deal produced by the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank.

  • Climate change and the 2020 election

    The efforts of climate activists, scientists, and journalists have helped to raise public awareness of the climate crisis and made it a top-tier issue for voters. In response, nearly all of the current and former 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have taken a position on the Green New Deal, and many of them released their own ambitious climate proposals.

    Unfortunately, candidates who appeared on the Sunday morning political shows were rarely asked in-depth questions about their specific climate plans, with hosts instead choosing to downplay the urgency of the climate crisis, question the efficacy of passing climate legislation, or amplify the horse-race aspects of the presidential campaign. 

    This Week co-host Jonathan Karl’s exchange with then-Democratic presidential hopeful Tom Steyer in July typified these discussions. After Karl casually referenced Steyer’s climate policy platform, the host pivoted to concerns about his perceived electability:

  • Video file

    Citation From the July 14, 2019, episode of This Week:

    JONATHAN KARL (CO-HOST): Now you mentioned going after the coal and fossil fuel companies, and there’s no doubt that you have done -- you’ve put a lot of money into that effort over the last few years. But your old hedge fund, the one you started, invested millions of dollars reportedly in coal mines and power plants in Indonesia, China, Australia. You basically built your fortune, did you not, in part through fossil fuels?

    KARL: You also have a record, everybody has a record that is going to be looked at, you’re going to run on, and I understand you sold your investments off in those fossil fuel companies. But The New York Times reported that the coal-related projects your firm bankrolled will generate tens of millions of tons of carbon pollution for years if not decades to come. Are Democrats really going to rally behind somebody whose work continues to pollute the environment, even if you’re no longer making money from those investments? What you put into effect continues to contribute to climate change.

  • Meet the Press host Chuck Todd was unconcerned about candidate Bernie Sanders’ plans to address the climate crisis, choosing to frame his climate question through the lens of electability.

  • Video file

    Citation From the May 19, 2019, episode of Meet the Press:

    CHUCK TODD (HOST): Well, let me start with something the vice president, former vice president, said yesterday. And it was a fascinating way -- he was talking about his climate change proposal. And he said, “If you want to know what the first and most important plank in my climate proposal is, it was,” quote, “beat Trump.” You have said, “If all the Democrats do is focus on Trump, you lose.” Essentially, Biden is saying, “No, no, no, no, no. It is all about Trump.” Your reaction.

  • Conversations like these silo climate change away from political action. Implicit in the Sunday morning political show hosts’ questions is the idea that a candidate’s climate policy only matters if it gives them an advantage over their political opponents -- not whether a candidate’s climate policy is adequate for mitigating the worst consequences of climate change. 

  • Historic climate activism

    In 2019, youth-led climate movements played a crucial role in elevating the Green New Deal, raising public awareness about the climate crisis, and at times driving mainstream news discussions. 

    In April, environmental and progressive groups including Credo Action (which ceased its direct action work in January), 350 Action, Greenpeace USA, Sunrise Movement, the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, and Daily Kos began circulating three petitions requesting that the Democratic National Committee hold a climate-focused debate. Although the DNC eventually ruled against holding a dedicated climate debate, the petitions garnered more than 300,000 signatures, and many Democratic presidential candidates came out in support of the groups’ effort. 

    September 20 saw up to 4 million people participate in what may be the largest climate protest in history. In a rare event, the broadcast networks all reported on a climate-focused story on the same day: The morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC and PBS NewsHour all devoted time to covering the strikes on September 20. And MSNBC’s two-day climate forum on September 19 and 20 was a rare nod to youth-activist groups that have been calling for political parties and media outlets to prioritize the climate crisis in the 2020 campaign cycle.

    Sunday morning political shows largely ignored the efforts of these youth-led organizations, with the exception of a February 24 Meet the Press segment in which Todd and MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell chided Sunrise activists for releasing a viral video that showed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) condescending to them after they pressed her to support the Green New Deal.

  • From the February 24, 2019, episode of Meet the Press:

  • CHUCK TODD (HOST): I think a lot of people look at a lot of that, Andrea, and think, “Boy, she could have been more, less tone deaf in how to talk to the kids,” and, “Who are the adults that are using kids to practice politics?” It was -- the whole thing was uncomfortable.

    ANDREA MITCHELL (MSNBC HOST): Very uncomfortable. And let me just say I think first of all, she is a leader on this subject. So, why didn't they go after someone who's against climate change? She has legislation. She's saying, “I don't want to sign on to the new green deal because it's aspirational. It's not legislation. I'm working on something that's real.” Also, who are the adults who bring their kids who don't understand this stuff? Seven-, eight-, nine-, 10-year-olds. I understand the passion of children and how important it is. But to ambush a senator this way. And again, her political skills, you know, were lacking in terms of the way social media conveyed this. But I just think, go after the critics. She has been, you know, stalwart on guns, on climate change, on all these other issues. And it just shows you the perils of social media. And also, I don’t -- I really don't understand this type of activism.

  • Although Heather McGhee, former president and current senior fellow at the liberal policy group Demos, injected a passionate call for climate action into the conversation, Todd’s and Mitchell’s statements reinforced the notion that climate politics is best practiced by elites. 

  • How Sunday shows can immediately improve their climate reporting

  • Critical analysis of news about climate change has tended to focus on deficiencies in media accounts of climate science, especially the tendency of mainstream media to portray so-called skepticism about climate change as credible or newsworthy. However, media attention to climate change is often at its most intense (and most memorable) during episodic political events such as election campaigns, policy debates and multilateral negotiations. Increased levels of coverage during these periods can establish dominant frames of cognition and affect, which have long-lasting impacts on how individuals think and feel about climate change — especially for those predisposed to pay close attention.

  • The Green New Deal, the 2020 Democratic primary, and politically engaged youth leading a revitalized climate movement all provided obvious entry points for the Sunday morning political shows to have substantive discussions that recognized climate change as a political challenge with political solutions. But that rarely happened. However, there are a few ways that Sunday morning political shows could immediately improve their reporting on the climate crisis. 

  • Increase the quantity and quality of climate and environmental reporting

    Year after year, Sunday morning political shows have failed to report on how climate consequences -- such as extreme weather events and the Trump administration’s ongoing assault on environmental protections -- are harming the most vulnerable and marginalized communities. By simply connecting the science of climate change to its rapidly unfolding consequences for poor communities across the country and reporting on how President Donald Trump’s environmental rollbacks will harm us all, especially low-income communities and communities of color, the Sunday shows would dramatically improve the quality and quantity of their climate reporting.

  • Celebrate political action

    The Sunday shows rarely covered climate activism, ignoring the grassroots push for a dedicated presidential climate debate and the multiple climate strikes led by youth activists. Climate studies have shown that people are more likely to engage in climate activism when they see stories of everyday people “who take initiative or leadership to advance political action in their local communities or in global contexts.” As the “News Media and Climate Politics” study noted:

  • Such stories of action generate more engagement than the familiar focus on political failures to address climate change, such as international negotiations, or information about actions like recycling. This is a strong argument for giving such stories a more prominent place in the mix of news about climate politics.

  • Instead of ignoring or castigating climate activists, Sunday morning political shows can better serve their audiences by putting climate activism in context, connecting these activities to the magnitude of the climate crisis, and reporting on them as normal expressions of civic engagement.

  • Show successful examples of climate policy

    A 2018 Harvard study titled “Doom and Gloom: The Role of the Media in Public Disengagement on Climate Change” asserted that “repetition of a narrow narrative that focuses exclusively on the impacts of climate change leaves the public with an overall sense of powerlessness.” The Sunday morning political shows compound this problem by presenting political action on climate change as the elite domain of political partisans, but there is a better way. The study notes:

  • Founder, publisher, and editor, David Beers says the value of solutions journalism is not that it injects hope into public discourse, but that it “keeps faith with the basic mandate of news to provide an objective, accurate, and useful description of the world in which we live. To really show people how policy works, how government works— how government, business NGO’s can work together to solve something—you really have to not just report on when it goes to hell; you’ve got to report on how it’s going right, or might go right.”

  • The authors of the study “News Media and Climate Politics” also found that “there is a critical demand for procedural knowledge — i.e. knowing how to take action — with respect to individual participation in climate politics.” 

    Good climate reporting can potentially disrupt public apathy, frustration, and cynicism about the efficacy of climate action. To do this, Sunday shows will have to do a better job covering groundbreaking climate proposals like the Green New Deal, discussing global, national, regional, and even local approaches to mitigating climate change, and detailing the specific climate plans that politicians have introduced to address Americans’ growing concerns about the climate crisis.

  • Coverage of climate is limited only by media’s imagination

  • Adopting the approaches above would require that Sunday morning political shows feature a broader array of voices that better reflect a diverse American society. There are many scientists and environmental justice activists, including men and women of color, willing to speak about their work combating climate change and the legacy of environmental racism. There are many indigenous reporters and activists who can speak to the unique environmental justice claims of tribal nations and peoples. There are community activists who can speak to the environmental neglect that has poisoned the air and water of low-income communities throughout the country. 

    As the “News Media and Climate Politics” study neatly summarized:

  • News media can continue to direct a narrow spotlight upon the failures of governments, political elites and international negotiations, leaving a cynical but passive audience with little choice but to dismiss the prospects of climate politics as a hopeless enterprise. Alternatively, reports of failure could be juxtaposed with stories of political initiative, creativity and courage that illuminate the countless examples of activism and engagement through which people in our communities and neighbourhoods are coming together in new forms of solidarity, community and action.

  • At this critical juncture, Sunday morning political shows face a simple decision: They can play a pivotal role in informing and empowering a public increasingly afraid of climate change and its consequences right now, or wait until they no longer have a choice.

    Charts by John Whitehouse.

  • Methodology

  • This report analyzes coverage of climate change in 2019 on five Sunday morning news shows: ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS' Face the Nation, CNN’s State of the Union, Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, and NBC's Meet the Press. To identify segments that discussed climate change, we searched for the following terms in Nexis: climate change, global warming, changing climate, climate warms, climate warming, warming climate, warmer climate, warming planet, warmer planet, warming globe, warmer globe, global temperatures, rising temperatures, hotter temperatures, climate science, climate scientist, paris climate, climate accord, paris accord, climate agreement, paris agreement, and climate deal. Our analysis included any segment devoted to climate change, as well as any substantial mention of climate change (more than one paragraph of a news transcript or a definitive statement by a media figure). The study did not include instances in which a non-media figure brought up climate change without being prompted to do so by a media figure unless the media figure subsequently addressed climate change. We defined media figures as hosts, anchors, correspondents, and recurring guest panelists.