wildfire / climate change / orange sky / san francisco / 9/9/20
Christopher Michel via Creative Commons

Research/Study Research/Study

Cable news largely failed to mention the connection between climate change and wildfires in its coverage

Only 13% of segments on the wildfires mentioned climate change

  • As wildfires rage across the West Coast, a Media Matters analysis found that cable news is frequently ignoring the relationship between climate change and the fires -- mentioning it in just 13% of segments. In the past four days, the wildfires have received just over five and a half hours of coverage across CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, and that coverage isn't painting the full picture of the connection between these historic fires and climate change.

    Fires in California and throughout the West Coast happen every year, but climate change is making the fire season start earlier and the blazes are more intense and destructive -- especially this year. Five of the 10 largest wildfires in California’s history are burning now and at least 10 people have lost their lives so far. The fires have already burned more acres in California than during any other year on record — and there are still several months left in the fire season. Last night, Oregon authorities disclosed that 500,000 people have been forced to evacuate statewide to escape the escalating blazes, and a fast-moving fire recently destroyed 80% of an entire town in Washington state. The fingerprints of climate change are all over these stories. But unfortunately, the mounting evidence linking the intensification of wildfires to our overheated planet has not swayed cable news networks to mention climate change consistently in their coverage of these unprecedented events.

    From September 7 through September 10, cable news covered the West Coast wildfires for 5 hours and 35 minutes. CNN covered them the most, with 2 hours and 11 minutes dedicated to the wildfires. MSNBC had 2 hours of coverage, while Fox News covered the fires for just 1 hour and 25 minutes -- an average of slightly over 20 minutes of coverage each day.

  • Time count of West Coast wildfires
  • CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News also largely failed to mention climate change in their coverage of the wildfires -- just 13% of segments made the connection. CNN mentioned climate change just five times in its 49 segments (10%), while MSNBC connected the fires to climate change in 11 of its 37 segments (30%) on the fires. Fox only mentioned climate change twice in its 54 segments (4%) on the fires, one of which was Tucker Carlson denying a connection between the two. MSNBC’s Katy Tur, whom Carlson mocked in his segment, brought up the climate change connection on every show she hosted throughout the week.

  • Cable News coverage of West Coast wildfires and climate change
  • Prime-time coverage of the wildfires was abysmal across all three networks. Out of 12 hours of programming, MSNBC dedicated 12 minutes of coverage to the fires in prime time, while CNN dedicated just three minutes of coverage over the four-day period. Fox News dedicated nearly six minutes; but it was largely in one segment from Carlson focused on denying the connection between the wildfires and climate change, despite overwhelming evidence that our overheated climate is playing a role in intensifying the fires in California and across the West. 

    Notably, the cable coverage mirrors broadcast TV news’ failure to connect the dots between climate change and the devastation unfolding in the West Coast. Over a four-day period from September 5 through 8, only 15% of broadcast coverage of the wildfires mentioned climate change, meaning almost all television news programs have largely reported these historic fires as an isolated phenomenon instead of part of the climate crisis we are in.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for any variations of any of the terms “wildfire,” “fire,” or “heat” on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC from 4 a.m. to midnight each day from September 7 through September 10, 2020. 

    We timed all segments about the California wildfires, passing mentions of the wildfires in segments on other topics, and teasers for upcoming segments about the wildfires.

    We counted as segments when the wildfires were the stated topic of discussion, where there was “significant discussion” of the California 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.

    We then reviewed each segment for whether any speakers mentioned climate change or global warming within the context of the wildfires.