australia burning
Credit: Ceci Freed / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

US broadcast news coverage of Australian fires largely fails to connect the crisis to climate change

But an uptick in early January coverage signals a possible improvement after months of ignoring the disaster

  • The scale of the bushfires burning in Australia is unprecedented, and the toll they have extracted is incomprehensible -- at least 27 people have perished, more than 12 million acres have been destroyed, and an estimated 1 billion animals have died. And fire season is just getting started.

    However, the magnitude of this developing crisis and the role of our increasingly warming climate in it, to date, have not been reflected by U.S. broadcast news coverage. 

    From September -- when the first bushfire broke out -- to early January, major morning, nightly, and weekend news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a 59 segments total on the Australian fires, and only nine of them (15.3%) mentioned climate change.

    However, with several months of fire season still ahead, broadcast news has an opportunity to educate its audiences on what climate change looks like and expose the real threats of climate denial and continued inaction. A significant uptick in coverage in the first week of January -- to 24 segments, or 41% of the total aired -- suggests that the significance of this catastrophe is starting to take hold in broadcast news. But will more reporting on the role of climate change follow?

  • Early coverage of the fires was sparse and underwhelming, absent of climate change

  • The early arrival of the fire season in Australia made it a climate story from day one. The New York Times reported on September 9 that “experts and some state officials ... have been quick to identify climate change as a major cause — a contentious argument for some people here in a country that is heavily reliant on the coal industry, with a conservative government that has resisted making climate policy a priority.”

    Though the fires’ first coverage by U.S. broadcast news came from ABC’s World News Tonight on September 8, connection to the climate crisis was not made until a December 22 segment by CBS Weekend News

    In fact, after World News Tonight first reported the story, more than a month passed before CBS and NBC even reported on the unfolding crisis in Australia. CBS’ first coverage came on November 11 during a segment on CBS This Morning. And NBC broke the silence on November 15 during a Today show segment on the continent’s declining koala population.

    Twelve of the 59 total fire segments (20%) aired in November, and all but three were centered on the country’s koala bear population.

    Twenty-two of the total fire segments (37%) aired in December, with many focusing on the debate of whether Sydney should go forward with its renowned New Year’s Eve fireworks display while massive fires consumed other parts of the country.

    From this focus on the fireworks to a viral story of a woman who rescued a koala bear from fire, broadcast news has not yet seemed to grasp the gravity of this global story.

    But that could be changing.

    The first week of January has yielded 24 segments about the Australian fires -- more than aired in the entire month of December and nearly half of all segments since the fires began. It’s also featured more than half of the total segments linking the epic fires to the climate crisis, but broadcast coverage still has a long way to go to put the fires in context for their viewers.

  • chart of Australia firs coverage from Sept to January
  • U.S. broadcast news programs have largely ignored the role of our overheated climate in intensifying the Australian fires

  • The apocalyptic fires burning across Australia are clearly being intensified by the climate crisis. The relationship between the country’s record temperatures and its “we’ve never seen anything like this” fire season is well-understood and undeniable.

    In fact, in November, 23 former Australian fire and emergency services leaders issued a joint statement for the third time in that year blaming the climate crisis for “supercharging” the fires and calling for the government to declare a climate emergency.

    Despite the clear fingerprints of climate change and the urging of those on the frontlines of this crisis to declare a climate emergency, U.S. broadcast news programs have largely failed to cover the Australian fires as a climate story, offering only nine segments discussing the relationship between Australia’s record fire season and rising temperatures. 

    CBS was responsible for nearly half of the mentions, airing five segments mentioning climate within the context of the fires out of 32 total segments, and gets credit for one of two substantive discussions on the subject. NBC contributed three mentions out of its 10 total segments on the fires, with one substantive discussion. ABC connected climate to the fires only once out of its 17 segments on the crisis, airing it during a January 6 segment on Good Morning America -- a full three months after the network initially covered the fires. 

    Unfortunately, six of the nine mentions connecting the fires and climate were brief, providing little context on this important issue. CBS made four such mentions of climate related to the Australia fires, while ABC and NBC each had one.

    ABC’s brief mention of climate came from Good Morning America on January 6 by correspondent Ginger Zee, who was reporting from Australia. Zee closed the three-and-a-half-minute segment by noting that experts and locals agree that a combination of “climate change, arson, and land management” is responsible for “this supercharged season.” This was the only time the network linked the Australian fires to our overheating planet. 

    NBC’s other two climate mentions included a December 31 discussion on NBC Nightly News which provided some context for the relationship between climate and the fires, noting that “Australia is uniquely vulnerable to climate change. This past year, it recorded its driest spring, and just a few weeks ago, its hottest day ever on record.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the December 31, 2019, edition of NBC Nightly News

  • And a more substantial climate discussion aired on NBC’s Today show during a January 6 segment about American firefighters helping fight the Australian fires. NBC correspondent Janis Mackey Frayer talked to an American firefighter about the “new norm” -- fires getting larger and seasons getting longer -- for those battling fires in Australia, the U.S., and around the globe:

  • Video file

    Citation From the January 6, 2020, edition of NBC's Today

  • In addition to CBS’ four brief mentions, the network also provided the best explainer on the relationship between the Australian crisis and climate, provided by CBS’ climate change and weather contributor Jeff Berardelli, on the January 3 episode of CBS This Morning:

  • Video file

    Citation From the January 3, 2020, edition of CBS This Morning

  • In his weather report, Berardelli explained how the trend of rising temperatures makes the conditions for catastrophic fires possible. Berardelli used similar language mentioning climate change in weather reports this past fall to put the California fires into context.

    Overall, broadcast news coverage of the Australian fires so far has shown only a slight improvement over the networks’ treatment of those California fires. Over a 12-day period from October 21 to November 1, major morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 243 segments on the string of destructive wildfires engulfing parts of California, but only eight of them, or 3.3%, mentioned climate change.

  • U.S. broadcast news programs don’t seize the opportunity to hold climate deniers accountable

  • Climate denial is rampant in both Australia’s governing party and the Rupert Murdoch-owned media outlets, which endorse its leaders and promote their destructive agenda of climate inaction. 

    In mid-November, politicians from the conservative party went on a media blitz to downplay the links between their country’s unfolding fire emergency and the climate crisis. Key leaders within the party insisted that their political rivals making the connection were “inner city raving lunatics” and claimed that talking about climate change while the fires were burning was a “bloody disgrace.”

    Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been among those both dismissing the fires’ links to climate change and refusing to treat the fires as a clarion call to act. Morrison has been widely criticized for his handling of the emergency, his stance on climate change, and his continued promotion of coal.

    In interviews and op-eds for major U.S. newspapers, on social media, and in letters to local city papers, Australians have been challenging Morrison and his party’s unwavering climate denial in the face of the country’s evident devastation.

    Three segments airing on U.S. broadcast news programs -- 33% of all climate mentions and just 5% of all segments on the Australian fires -- covered the mounting criticism directed at Australia’s prime minister for his position on climate change in the face of the Australian fires. Two of the segments appeared on CBS, while the third appeared on NBC. 

    During a December 22 segment on the prime minister’s ill-timed Hawaiian vacation, CBS Weekend News edition host Errol Barnett noted that “critics charge Morrison has not done enough to fight climate change, blamed for fueling these massive and deadly fires”. The network also reported the criticism during a segment airing on CBS Evening News on December 31. Daniel Sutton, correspondent for CBS’ sister network in Australia, reported, “Australia’s prime minister, who’s being criticized for his lack of action on climate change, is sending in military aircraft to help and assist with evacuations” for the thousands of people trapped on beaches of Australia’s southeast coastline awaiting rescue from the surrounding fires.

    And during her segment on NBC's Today show on January 6, Mackey Frayer noted, “There is mounting pressure on Australia's prime minister for downplaying the control of climate change here, leaving the country ill-prepared with tourists beaches now evacuation zones, wildlife populations wiped out, and much of the coast in flames.”

    While all three of the segments noted the criticism in their coverage, none provided a substantive discussion about the dangers of denial in the face of this climate emergency or what denial and inaction will mean for future climate-driven catastrophes.

  • Going forward, broadcast coverage must put Australia’s fires in context of the climate crisis

  • The Australian fires are not the first blazes covered by U.S. broadcast news and, unfortunately, unmitigated climate change will ensure they are not the last. From California to the Amazon to Australia, broadcast news has largely done a poor job putting this era of historic fires into context.

    Discussing images of the fires found on social media, climate journalist David Wallace-Wells noted in a December 31 New York magazine article:

  • Images like these are already disconcertingly familiar, especially from the California wildfires of 2017 and 2018. But the response to what’s transpired in Australia — again, over a period that has stretched into months — is unfamiliar, to me at least, and not in a good way. Those California fires transfixed the world’s attention, but while the ones still burning uncontrolled in Australia have gotten some media attention outside the country, in general they have been treated as a scary, but not apocalyptic, local news story.

  • Media coverage that fails to connect climate change to the Australian fires and other climate-fueled blazes and fails to identify those who are obstructing climate action is leaving out the “why” at the heart of these stories. As these tragic fires continue to burn, broadcast news outlets have an opportunity to tell the whole story: This is what climate change looks like. These are climate stories.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched the Nexis database for television transcripts with any of the terms “bushfires,” “blaze,” or “fires” within transcripts that contained the term “Australia” from September 1 through January 6. We searched the three national broadcast networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC. Our analysis covered morning news shows (ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC’s Today), nightly news shows (ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News), plus weekend programming, including Sunday morning political news shows (ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, and NBC’s Meet the Press). Because NBC did not provide a transcript for the December 31, 2019, episode of NBC Nightly News, we searched the SnapStream video database to review the transcript.

    Total mentions of the Australia fires include significant discussion of the topic, weather reports that mention the fires, and  news briefs that report on the fires. We excluded topic teasers, defined as a short blip from the host that mentions a segment coming later in the broadcast.

    We reviewed each transcript for discussion around the fires burning in Australia, which began in early September, to determine if the program connected the fires to climate change.