The wildfires burning along the West Coast are among the most destructive and deadly in history. In California alone, wildfires have scorched more than 3.4 million acres -- far surpassing the state’s previous record of 1.9 million acres in 2018. The unprecedented blazes in Oregon have destroyed at least 5 towns and the fires up and down the coast have claimed at least 36 lives. The toxic air from the fires in the Pacific Northwest is now the most hazardous in the world, and the smoke has reached all the way to the East Coast and Europe.
As expected, these fires have garnered significant media attention for their tragic and destructive scale. But it was only last week that corporate broadcast TV outlets covered them as an indicator that the climate crisis is upon us.
Predictably, the coverage lasted only briefly.
On September 14, President Donald Trump touched down in California to observe the devastation wrought by the fires and to receive a briefing from Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials.
The briefing produced an exchange between Trump, Newsom, and the other officials in attendance that brought the president's denialist views on climate change into stark contrast with the scientific evidence that global warming is intensifying the fires and the widely held understanding that our planet -- in absence of bold and immediate action -- will continue to heat. When Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for natural resources, urged Trump and others not to ignore the warming climate, Trump responded, “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.” And when Crowfoot replied, “I wish science agreed with you,” Trump said, “I don’t think science knows, actually.”
Trump’s denial of climate change in the West Coast fires launched a multiple-day discussion across corporate television news programs about the relationship between climate change and the historic wildfires.
As a result, Media Matters found that:
- Corporate broadcast TV outlets — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 46 segments about wildfires on their morning and evening news shows from September 14 through September 18.
- Fourteen of the 46 wildfire segments -- 30% of them -- mentioned climate change. This represents twice as many mentions as a similar review in early September and a three-fold increase over wildfire coverage in all of August.
- Wildfire coverage that included Trump’s visit to California on September 14 accounted for a little more than half of all climate mentions on broadcast news from September 14 through September 18.
- Cable news outlets CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC aired a combined 263 segments about wildfires on their original programming between 4 a.m. EDT to midnight between September 14 through September 18.
- On cable, 150 wildfire segments -- 57% of them -- mentioned climate change. This is a huge increase in climate mentions when compared to a similar review in early September, when these cable outlets mentioned climate change in only 13% of wildfire segments.
- Wildfire coverage that included Trump’s visit to California on September 14 accounted for over 70% of all climate mentions on cable news during the studied time period.
Between September 14 and 15, climate was mentioned in nearly every broadcast news segment during wildfire coverage -- a fact that would have been momentous if it represented a new awareness of the issue or signaled that media had turned a corner on climate change coverage. But instead, climate mentions in the wildfire coverage dropped off precipitously thereafter. By week's end, there were no mentions of climate change in wildfire coverage on broadcast news programs.
Cable news followed a similar pattern: Nearly 90% of climate mentions in wildfire coverage on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News came between September 14 and 15. And for the rest of the week, there were only two total climate mentions in wildfire segments on September 18.
Broadcast news fails to incorporate climate discussion into ongoing coverage of wildfires
Corporate broadcast news programs have been slow to incorporate the link between climate change and wildfires into their coverage this fire season. A Media Matters analysis found that the vast majority of broadcast TV news coverage during the month of August ignored the relationship between climate change and the Western wildfires, with only 4% of the wildfire coverage making the link. A review in early September showed an improvement with 15% of wildfire segments mentioning the connections between climate and wildfires between September 5 and 8.
From September 14 through September 18, climate mentions in wildfire coverage from broadcast news outlets doubled. Morning and evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC collectively aired 46 segments on the West Coast wildfires. Fourteen of these wildfire segments, or 30%, mentioned climate change. However, the majority of climate mentions appeared during coverage that included Trump’s visit to California and was directly responding to his statements denying the role of climate change in the fires.
By and large, these segments affirmed the scientific consensus that our warming climate is intensifying wildfires. At least two segments drew a direct line between the relationship of climate change and wildfires and Trump’s record on rolling back policies and regulations intended to reduce climate change-causing carbon emissions.
The September 14 edition of both ABC’s World News Tonight and NBC’s Nightly News tethered Trump’s statement on climate science to his administration’s actions. ABC senior congressional correspondent Mary Bruce pointed out that Trump has “aggressively rolled back policies intended to counter climate change,” and she later compared Trump’s actions toward climate change to his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that in both cases he is “ignoring the science.”
Reporting for NBC's Nightly News, NBC correspondent Hallie Jackson detailed some of Trump's record on climate including rolling back environmental regulations, pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, and mocking the urgency of the climate threat. Jackson also pivoted to Trump’s Nevada rally and blatant disregard for scientific recommendations established to protect against spreading the coronavirus.
Unfortunately, these important discussions -- which incorporated both climate science and action and compared Trump’s climate denial with his response to the pandemic -- have not carried over to the networks' ongoing coverage of these dangerous and deadly fires. From September 17 through September 18, broadcasts news programs aired 13 segments on the wildfires, and not one mentioned climate change.
The burst of climate coverage followed by silence is an all-too-familiar pattern that exposes corporate television news programs’ persistent issues in coverage of extreme weather events. But this brief burst also demonstrates that it is possible to produce good coverage which takes climate change out of a silo and contextualizes its causes and impacts.
Cable news outlets significantly improved upon their climate coverage, but only for two days
CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC aired a combined 263 segments on wildfires from September 14 through 18, and 57% of them mentioned climate change. This is a staggeringly large increase in climate mentions by the major cable outlets compared to their previous wildfire reporting. Over a four-day period from September 7 to 10, only 13% of collective cable wildfire segments mentioned climate change. Similarly, over a 12-day period in late October 2019, only 5% of collective wildfire segments on cable news mentioned climate change.
Broken down by network, 55 of CNN’s 97 wildfire segments (57%) mentioned climate change; 57 of MSNBC’s 87 wildfire segments (66%) mentioned climate change, and 38 of Fox News’ 79 wildfire segments (48%) mentioned climate change.
However, nearly all of these climate mentions -- 89% of them -- came during a two-day period from September 14 to 15, when cable news outlets essentially had wall-to-wall coverage of the California wildfires and Trump’s response to them. Similar to the major broadcast networks, the number of wildfire segments and climate mentions on cable news dropped significantly during the latter three days of last week: 77 wildfire segments were aired collectively on the three major cable outlets during that time, and only 16 of them -- roughly 21% -- mentioned climate change.
CNN and MSNBC set a high bar with the quality of their climate coverage, even if the bulk of it was for only two days. For example, with the exception of the 4 a.m. news hour on CNN, each show that aired on these networks on September 14 mentioned climate change in relation to the wildfires at least once, which is extremely rare for any major cable news outlet. CNN conducted wide-ranging interviews with extensive climate mentions from people such as Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, former Vice President and climate activist Al Gore, Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter, and California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot. Similarly, MSNBC conducted interviews with people such as Crowfoot, Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, Sacramento Democratic Mayor Darrell Steinberg, and Axios climate change reporter Amy Harder.
Succinct links were made between climate change and the fires. One excellent example comes from the September 18 edition of CNN Newsroom. Anchor John King asked NASA physical scientist Doug Morton to “explain to people why climate change without a doubt is making a bad situation worse.” In response, Morton noted, “Climate change is one critical ingredient why fire emergencies have become more regular, more long-lasting, and more severe. We see warming temperatures, longer dry seasons, and extreme events like heat waves that synchronize the risk of fire across enormous landscapes.”
On MSNBC, meteorologist Al Roker mentioned climate change in at least two of his weather reports on the wildfires; on the September 15 edition of MTP Daily, he stated, “I don't care what anybody is going to tell you. Climate change is a factor in this -- the summer and fall, not just for California but the Pacific Northwest, hotter and drier, we’ve seen more extreme fire weather days.” Later that day on Deadline: White House, ProPublica senior environmental reporter Abrahm Lustgarten stated about the fires: “The drought is making fuels more susceptible to burning, the winds are stronger, and more so. We're seeing right now that this long-predicted change is upon us, but the papers, the academic research that I'm reading, says that what we're experiencing this year is really just sort of the tip of the changes that are to come.”
A large majority of climate mentions within wildfire segments -- 71% of them -- referenced either Trump’s visit to California, his remarks on forest management, or his clear denial of climate change. On the September 14 edition of MSNBC Live with Katy Tur, climate scientist Michael Mann did a great job of refuting Trump’s forest management comments and his climate denial while also explaining the clear links between climate change and these fires.
There were numerous references to Trump’s disregard for good science during this wildfire reporting period. On the September 14 edition of The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, for example, CNN’s Jim Acosta tied together Trump’s climate denial in relation to the fires and his clear disregard for general science in understanding the coronavirus pandemic.
While Fox News mentioned climate change in nearly half of its wildfire segments, much of its coverage was littered with its usual climate denial and misinformation about the fires. After the flurry of coverage between September 14 and 15, only two of Fox’s 28 segments on the wildfires aired during the last three days of the week mentioned climate; one of them was a September 16 segment in which Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) downplayed climate change’s role in the fires. Overall, out of Fox’s 38 climate mentions over this total period, 30 of them -- 79% -- mentioned Trump and his response to the fires.
While it’s good that climate change was mentioned so much on the cable networks, it’s important to sustain this coverage. For a two-day period, climate and extreme weather coverage looked like what climate activists and Media Matters have been demanding for years. In an era of rapidly accelerating climate change, cable news needs to cover this important issue not just for two days, but every day.
Trump driving climate coverage is not new, but it is still extremely worrisome
Not all climate coverage is good climate coverage. Trump’s remarks refuting the role of climate change in what is clearly a defining event in the crisis and suggesting that the climate is miraculously going to start cooling deserved thorough media scrutiny -- and for the most part, they got it. But the incident also generated some coverage that treated his views as valid or framed climate change as a matter of opinion.
Such shallow and misleading coverage crowded out other voices that should have been heard, including stories further illuminating the threat of climate change and those highlighting solutions to mitigating that threat. By doing so, the media have perpetuated a trend of allowing Trump’s actions and statements to drive coverage of the climate crisis. For example, a Media Matters analysis found that 79% of climate change coverage on the major corporate broadcast TV networks in 2017 focused on statements or actions by the Trump administration.
Media’s focus on climate largely through the statements and actions of the Trump administration is particularly stark during their coverage of extreme weather events. The most indelible image from the tragic landfall of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is Trump throwing paper towels at survivors. The lives that Hurricane Dorian claimed were overshadowed by the spectacle of “Sharpie-gate” -- when the president altered a map of the storm’s predicted path with a marker. And his response to California officials that “it’ll get cooler” as they beg him to take the climate crisis seriously will likely be a punchline for years to come. The president’s actions and statements should be part of the story, but the media’s focus on them should not distract or take away from the stories that contribute to understanding the climate crisis and our need to address it.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC from 4 a.m. to midnight EDT daily; ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight; CBS’ This Morning and Evening News; and NBC’s Today and Nightly News for any variations of any of the terms “wildfire” or “fire” from September 14-18, 2020. We included the third hour of NBC’s Today show.
We included all news and weather segments about the wildfires. We counted as segments when the wildfires were the stated topic of discussion, where there was “significant discussion” of the wildfires, or where there were mentions of the wildfires within the context of a weather report. We defined “significant discussion” as instances where two or more speakers discussed the wildfires with one another.
Correction (10/15/20): The two original charts in this piece have been updated to accurately reflect both the number of wildfire segments that do mention climate change and the number of wildfire segments that do not mention climate change.