Broadcast and cable news coverage of the latest record-breaking heat wave in the West mentioned climate change but largely ignored its effects on vulnerable populations
On the heels of recent high temperatures that shattered records in the Pacific Northwest, another record-breaking extreme heat wave scorched California and large swaths of the Western United States over the last week. Media Matters analyzed coverage of the latest Western heat wave, which endangered people, strained power grids, and stymied efforts to contain a growing wildfire, and found that the major cable news networks as well as morning and evening news shows on broadcast TV aired 97 combined segments about the extreme heat. Only 37 of them, or 38%, mentioned climate change.
Additionally, our analysis found that very few of the segments about the California heat wave contextualized how it affected socially marginalized communities.
Scientists have determined that extreme heat events are “some of the clearest impacts of climate change on extreme weather” and have warned that without immediate climate action, these events will become increasingly intense, longer lasting, and more frequent. They are also some of the most deadly. In fact, the recent Pacific Northwest heat wave, described as the worst “ever observed anywhere in North America,” was responsible for nearly 200 deaths in Oregon and Washington and nearly 500 deaths in British Columbia. Many of these deaths were among homeless people.
Research has also found that the most vulnerable communities are disproportionately at risk from the consequences of climate change. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in late 2018:
Social, economic, and geographic factors shape the exposure of people and communities to climate-related impacts and their capacity to respond. Risks are often highest for those that are already vulnerable, including low-income communities, some communities of color, children, and the elderly.
By failing to mention the complex legacy of racism, economic exploitation, and climate injustice in reporting on the latest record-breaking heat wave, TV news may leave its viewers with the impression that people harmed by climate-driven extreme weather events are really just unfortunate victims of nature, rather than victims of a failing system that leaves millions in poverty to face the brunt of the climate crisis.
Broadcast TV news programs mentioned climate change in 34% of Western heat wave segments
Broadcast TV news shows aired a combined 32 segments that mentioned the recent heat wave, and just 11 of those segments, or 34%, mentioned climate change. This is a slight increase compared to their reporting on the Pacific Northwest heat wave, in which they mentioned climate change in only 5 of 17 segments, or 29%, over a two-day period in late June.
CBS aired the most segments about the heat wave (12) and half (6) mentioned climate change. Notably, CBS’ Face the Nation was the only broadcast Sunday morning political show that mentioned climate change during its coverage. CBS also mentioned the heat wave’s impact on outdoor workers in two segments and the heat wave’s impact on people without access to air conditioning in one segment.
One good example comes from the July 10 edition of CBS This Morning, with CBS News Meteorologist and Climate Specialist Jeff Berardelli.
ABC aired 11 segments about the heat wave and only two, or 18%, mentioned climate change. ABC’s coverage did not address how the heat wave would affect socially marginalized communities.
NBC aired the fewest segments (6) about the heat wave, and only two of those (33%) mentioned climate change. Additionally, NBC mentioned the heat wave’s impact on people without access to air conditioning in one excellent segment on the July 10 edition of NBC Nightly News, when correspondent Erin McLaughlin also noted that “scientists are warning we need to be prepared for more intense and more frequent heat waves as climate change continues.”
PBS NewsHour aired three segments about the heat wave; one segment on July 9 mentioned climate change as well as the heat wave’s impacts on poor communities, homeless people, and those without access to air conditioning.
Cable news programs mentioned climate change in 40% of their Western heat wave segments
From July 8-12, cable news networks aired a combined 65 segments about the California heat wave, and 26 of them, or 40%, mentioned climate change. This is a significant increase compared to cable networks’ coverage of the Pacific Northwest heat wave -- when they mentioned climate change in only 3 of 18 segments, or 17%.
CNN aired the most cable news segments (32) about the latest heat wave, but only 8 of them, or 25%, mentioned climate change. Although MSNBC aired fewer total segments (25) than CNN, 17 of them, or 68%, mentioned climate change. Fox aired only eight heat wave segments, with just one mention of climate (13%).
There were a few standout segments, including the July 10 episode of CNN Newsroom, which hosted Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak to discuss how climate change is driving extreme heat and drought and how these conditions are contributing to water shortages and wildfires.
CNN aired another strong heat wave segment during the July 11 episode of CNN Newsroom that featured meteorologist Tom Sater, who mentioned how many all-time temperature records were broken in the last 20 years before noting succinctly, “Climate change has got its fingerprints all over this.”
While CNN mentioned the heat wave’s disproportionate impact on people without access to air conditioning in two segments, it did not mention the heat wave’s impact on lower-income communities, minority communities, or outdoor workers. Fox News, meanwhile, did not mention how the heat wave would affect socially marginalized communities.
MSNBC’s coverage of the heat wave was much stronger than its competitors and much better than its reporting on the Pacific Northwest heat wave in June. Not only did the network consistently connect the latest Western heat wave to climate change, but it was also the best-performing network in contextualizing how these extreme weather events affect vulnerable populations, with two segments mentioning the impact to low-income communities, one mentioning the impact to minority communities, one mentioning the impact on outdoor workers, and four mentioning people without access to air conditioning.
One of the strongest segments on any network aired during the July 12 episode of Katy Tur Reports, when guest anchor Kendis Gibson featured Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to discuss how climate change was driving extreme weather events from heat waves to wildfires. The wide-ranging discussion touched on extreme weather affecting infrastructure, agriculture, low-income communities, farmers and outdoor laborers, and people without air conditioners in their homes.
The most substantive discussion of extreme weather’s impact on vulnerable communities aired during the July 11 episode of MSNBC’s PoliticsNation. Host Al Sharpton featured longtime environmental justice activist Peggy Shepard to discuss the “unique vulnerabilities” communities of color face and the need for strong infrastructure to combat climate change and environmental pollution.
Broadcast and cable news must push harder to produce consistently substantive coverage of extreme weather events
The few outstanding examples from this period of heat wave coverage show that broadcast and cable news shows can do a good job contextualizing the impact of climate-driven extreme weather events. But we need much more coverage like this.
Connecting extreme weather events to the climate crisis is an important step that TV news networks must take to begin improving their climate coverage, but it’s only the first step. They are still largely failing to connect these events to policies and practices that exacerbate climate impacts and hamper recovery; to detail the systemic inequalities and injustices that shape disparate climate and environmental outcomes; to amplify the voices of people on the frontlines of the climate crisis; and to keep reporting on the recovery efforts of places that have experienced climate and environmental disasters.
It’s much easier to interview tourists sweltering in Las Vegas, like CNN did, than to interview homeless people and their advocates to understand how they are coping with the heat wave. It’s easier to air stories about how the heat wave would affect the launch of billionaire Richard Branson’s vanity space flight than to cover how it affects poor people who cannot afford air conditioners. This myopic coverage, which is getting better at recognizing climate signals and connecting them to breaking news stories, still largely underreports on the systemic failures that have brought us to the brink of climate disaster, casts communities that are devastated almost yearly by extreme weather events as helpless victims, and lets the polluting industries primarily responsible for driving the climate crisis and environmental degradation continue to avoid accountability.
There’s still time to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change, but it will require an informed and engaged public to push for action. To that end, news outlets must commit to sustained coverage of climate change and its potential solutions and to challenge industries, policymakers, and public officials who continue to drag their feet and ignore the demands of millions of Americans who are increasingly concerned about how climate change will harm their lives.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ This Morning and Evening News, NBC’s Today and Nightly News, PBS’ NewsHour, and all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “heat,” “heatwave,” “heat wave,” “hot,” or “temperature” within close proximity of any of the terms “California,” “Central Valley,” “Death Valley,” “Palm Springs,” “Sacramento,” or any variations of the term “west” from July 8-12, 2021.
We reviewed segments, which we defined as instances when the heat wave was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of the heat wave. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the heat wave with one another.
We then reviewed the identified segments for any mention of the terms “climate” or “global warming.” Additionally, we reviewed the identified segments for references to at-risk communities impacted by the heat wave. These included references to low-income communities, minority communities, outdoor workers, and people without access to air conditioning.