The three big U.S. cable TV news networks -- CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC -- aired just over four hours of combined coverage on the opening day of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) on November 1. CNN accounted for over half of this coverage -- 123 minutes -- followed by MSNBC with 61 minutes and Fox News with 57 minutes of coverage.
CNN set the bar with the quantity of its COP26 opening day coverage
CNN aired over double the coverage than its cable news counterparts Fox News and MSNBC, combined.
The 4 a.m. hour of CNN Newsroom Live kicked off the network’s coverage. The nearly 10-minute segment touched on the importance of COP26 and the urgency needed in reducing carbon emissions. Additionally, CNN correspondent Frederik Pleitgen reported live from Senegal in Western Africa, and he touched upon the issue of climate financing for developing countries -- a key priority of the global conference. He then tied the need for financing back to how climate change is devastating the economy of Senegal and contributing to the growing problem of climate refugees:
Another good example of quality reporting came during the 8 a.m. edition of New Day. The segment featured three CNN personalities -- news anchor Wolf Blitzer, chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins, and chief climate correspondent Bill Weir -- who were all reporting live from the summit in Scotland. The segment offered a good overview of the summit and the landscape in which negotiations will play out, including new findings on the record levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and details regarding efforts to pass meaningful climate policy in the U.S. It also featured Weir offering the blunt observation as to why countries have “been kicking this can down the road for 30 years” in terms of climate inaction:
In addition to Blitzer, Collins, and Weir, CNN chief international anchor Christiane Amanpour and international correspondent Phil Black were also reporting live from Scotland.
Overall, CNN invited five guests to discuss COP26. These included author Fiona Hill, Atlanta Journal-Constitution correspondent Tia Mitchell, Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development Samantha Power, and two climate-related guests: climate reporter Coral Davenport of The New York Times and White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy. McCarthy, who is attending COP26 as part of President Joe Biden’s delegation, was interviewed during the 3 p.m. hour of CNN Newsroom, during which she discussed the importance of the Build Back Better Act and how the U.S. can cooperate with China, which leads the world in carbon emissions, on climate issues:
One lapse in CNN’s day one COP26 coverage was that its evening and prime-time news lagged behind in covering the event. Only 20 minutes of CNN’s COP26 coverage came after 5 p.m. Evening and prime-time news shows draw in the most viewers and given the importance of COP26, more time should have been devoted to it during those hours.
Overall, though, CNN’s day one COP26 coverage was a marked improvement over its coverage of previous major climate events in 2021. For example, the major cable networks aired roughly four hours of combined coverage of a slew of executive climate orders signed by Biden on January 27, 2021. CNN devoted the least amount of time to the orders among the cable networks -- spending less than half the time that Fox did discussing Biden’s climate agenda. Additionally, CNN lagged behind MSNBC in its Earth Day coverage, airing 70 minutes compared to MSNBC’s 116. (CNN did, however, host an hour-long climate town hall with Biden administration officials on April 23.)
MSNBC’s day one reporting of COP26 was good (with one caveat), while its quantity was lacking
MSNBC aired just over an hour of coverage of COP26’s opening day. The network didn’t air any COP26 segments between its 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. hours and during its 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. hours. In fact, the channel covered the event for only eight minutes after 5 p.m. Given the four-hour time difference between Glasgow and the Eastern Daylight Time zone, this would have been a great time to recap the day’s events.
Nonetheless, the quality of MSNBC’s coverage was good -- with one caveat. The longest segment, nearly 10 minutes on Andrea Mitchell Reports, featured climate scientist Michael Mann, climate-focused think tank E3G’s CEO Nick Mabey, and NBC senior White House correspondent Kelly O’Donnell (who reported live from Scotland). At the start of the segment, however, host Andrea Mitchell and O’Donnell spent well over two minutes on whether Biden fell asleep during part of the day’s events -- a distraction that right-wing media outlets were all too eager to also jump on. The segment did get back on track with Mabey mentioning the importance of getting China to the table and Mann discussing the U.S. being in a climate leadership position again:
Besides Mann and Mabey, other guests MSNBC invited to talk about COP26 included British Ambassador to the United States Karen Pierce, Financial Times editor and columnist Edward Luce, and Leah Stokes, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Stokes appeared on MTP Daily to discuss the prospects for COP26’s success, the importance of passing climate legislation in the U.S., and how to sell climate action as a good deal to countries like China and Russia (whose leaders are not attending the summit):
Fox News aired the least amount of coverage. As usual, it was rife with mockery, misinformation, and denial
Fox News aired less than an hour of coverage on COP26. Historically, Fox News has dominated climate coverage during key climate moments when compared to CNN and MSNBC. For example, Fox well outpaced CNN and MSNBC in covering the January 27 Climate Day actions. So its lack of consistent COP26 day one coverage was certainly surprising.
One look at Fox’s guest list confirms this fact. Its four guests invited to discuss COP26 included serial climate contrarian Bjorn Lomborg, far-right British politician Nigel Farage, polluting industry front group head Daniel Turner, and longtime tobacco and coal lobbyist Steve Milloy. Particularly egregious examples came from Turner and Milloy. Turner said on America’s Newsroom that “climate change panic is so overblown that it is hyperbolic and silly,” and Milloy stated on The Ingraham Angle about proponents of climate action that “they’re trying to hustle us quickly into giving them the power. That’s what this is all about. They’re scaring us, guilt tripping us.”
The most distressing fact about Fox’s coverage was that nearly half of it -- 26 minutes -- came during its evening and prime-time hours from 5 p.m. to midnight. At a time when the majority of its viewers tune in, the network’s key takeaways included Biden possibly falling asleep, outrage at Biden for apologizing to the world over his predecessor’s actions to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, and criticism of leaders using private jets to attend the conference.
The coverage also, of course, included climate denial. In addition to the aforementioned Milloy example, an over-eight-minute segment on The Five included co-host Greg Gutfeld lying about the veracity of climate models, co-host Jesse Watters mocking the seriousness of climate change, and co-host Katie Pavlich using the tired denier talking point that climate change is all about authoritarian control over people’s lives.
COP26 will run for more than a week, and there are still many opportunities for CNN and MSNBC to improve their coverage. For CNN, it’s maintaining the high level of coverage that it set out to do on day one and continuing to cover important developments like climate finance. For MSNBC, it’s matching CNN’s coverage. Both networks should also earnestly cover the summit on their prime-time shows. Fox, meanwhile, will almost certainly double down on climate denial and its mockery of COP26. What remains to be seen, however, is if it increases the quantity of its awful coverage.