Climate denial and near climate silence has marred national TV news coverage of Hurricane Ian
Only 4% of coverage connected the storm to climate change
On September 24, as Hurricane Ian strengthened, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for the entirety of Florida. Late afternoon on September 28, the hurricane made landfall on the west coast of the state, bringing historic storm surge and catastrophic flooding and at least six storm-related fatalities. The hurricane has garnered sustained TV news coverage since September 24, elevating to wall-to-wall coverage by September 28.
A review by Media Matters found that during this period national TV news broadcasters — ABC, CBS, and NBC — and cable news networks — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC — dedicated a whopping 57 hours of media coverage to the hurricane across mentions, teasers, and segments.
This coverage included 1,020 segments. Within those segments climate change was mentioned 46 times. Seven of those mentions, appearing on Fox News, were in the context of climate denial.
Hurricanes like Ian are stronger and wetter because of climate change
Scientists have repeatedly warned that global warming is making storms like Ian stronger and wetter and even proved the extent to which human-caused warming has increased the damage caused by specific storms. Already, a study has suggested that Ian dumped 10% more rain than it would have otherwise due to climate change.
And before Ian even hit land, climate scientists were warning that the storm could rapidly supercharge due to the “unusually warm waters” it would pass over. As reported by Time, “The stretch of water the storm traveled over was a full 1℃ warmer than average, largely due to climate change.” In response, the storm underwent “rapid intensification”: “Between Monday and Tuesday, Hurricane Ian became 67% stronger.”
Compounding the intensity of the storm are rising sea levels which multiply what can be the most dangerous aspect of storms on the coast: storm surge. But with few exceptions, the relationship between our warming planet and the characteristics of Hurricane Ian were not part of national TV news coverage.
National TV news has largely failed to cover Hurricane Ian as a climate story
Coverage of Hurricane Ian by corporate TV news was extensive and voluminous. All six networks included in Media Matters’ analysis had meteorologists and correspondents on the ground delivering vital reporting on the strength and intensity of the storm; the September 28 editions of both the CBS and NBC evening news programs broadcast from Florida. Many programs carried live press briefings from local and federal officials that included critical information on how to stay safe and what those affected should expect in the coming days. This has long been the role and goal of hurricane coverage -- and by and large, it was accomplished.
But the checklist of what hurricane coverage should constitute must also include both communicating the connection to the climate crisis and making viewers more conversant about what stronger and more frequent storms mean for residents. At this point, to not do so is media malpractice.
Early reporting on the strengthening storm approaching Florida, followed by wall-to-wall coverage, offered ample opportunity for networks to provide this type of in-depth coverage, but only 46 of 1,020 segments made even a passing mention of climate change. Among the broadcast networks, NBC had the most mentions with 4, followed by ABC with 2 mentions, and CBS with 1. Combined corporate broadcast coverage mentioned climate change in 7 of 121 (6%) segments.
MSNBC aired the most connections to climate among the cable networks, with 17, followed by CNN with 15. MSNBC and CNN combined aired 32 segments that mentioned climate change in relation to Hurricane Ian, or 4%. More on Fox News climate mentions below.
Some of the most substantive segments on the relationship between Hurricane Ian and climate change that appeared on broadcast included the September 27 edition of ABC’s World News Tonight. ABC meteorologist Rob Marciano noted that climate change has influenced Ian’s rapid intensification and the warm ocean waters around Florida. And on the September 28 edition of NBC Nightly News, correspondent Kerry Sanders stated that “experts say the warming waters of the gulf may be attributed to climate change. … That warm water fuels the monster storm.”
On cable, MSNBC aired the most substantive segments on climate, including on the September 28 edition of MSNBC’s Alex Wagner Tonight. It featured an interview with climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe, who spoke about how climate change is exacerbating hurricanes: “We aren't seeing a change in the overall numbers of hurricanes, but when those hurricanes happen they are intensifying faster. They're getting stronger, they are dumping a lot more rain on us, and they are even moving more slowly. Climate change is truly loading the weather dice against us, putting us all at risk.”
The September 28 edition of MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell featured an interview with meteorologist Robert Henson, who noted that “one thing that’s a hallmark of our changing climate that we have seen demonstrated with Ian is rapid intensification.”
Fox News ramped up its climate denial during its Hurricane Ian coverage
Fox News accounted for 7 of the 46 climate mentions during Hurricane Ian coverage, and all of those mentions came in the context of denying or dismissing the connection between our warming climate and the strengthening of storms.
On back-to-back nights on September 27 and September 28, Fox News’ most watched hosts pushed climate denial and hosted deniers on their programs. On September 27, Tucker Carlson called severity warnings leading up to the storm a “scam” on Tucker Carlson Tonight. On September 28, all three prime-time hosts amplified manufactured right-wing media outrage over an exchange between CNN’s Don Lemon and the acting director of the National Hurricane Center, with the purpose of dismissing the link between climate change and increasingly intense hurricanes.
Among the most egregious coverage was blatant misinformation from prime-time guests including Fox News regular Michael Shellenberger, who appeared on the September 28 edition of The Ingraham Angle and falsely claimed that hurricanes are “not intensifying now, so any perception that hurricanes are more intense is just a perception fed by that relentless alarmist media.” Sean Hannity’s “chief meteorologist” and climate denier Joe Bastardi appeared on back-to-back nights of his show. On the September 27 edition, Bastardi repeated the oft-used denier talking point that hurricane frequency has not increased. In fact, climate change has not made hurricanes more frequent but more severe.
Fox News' string of climate denial in response to a supercharged storm is shameful, but it’s not new. The response to Hurricane Ian mirrors the network response to Hurricane Ida last year — and its general response to any extreme weather event.
More and more, TV news is characterizing extreme weather as climate change — except hurricanes
2021 was a breakout year for extreme weather coverage. Climate mentions during reporting on climate-fueled wildfires and heat waves increased significantly over previous years — a trend that has continued into 2022. But hurricanes are still largely met with climate silence.
After coverage of extreme weather events last summer garnered significant climate mentions. During the record-breaking Western heat wave in July, 38% of broadcast and cable news segments from July 8-12 made the connection to climate change, while 36% of wildfire coverage from July 21-27 made the connection. Media Matters found that broadcast and cable TV news shows aired a combined 95 segments from August 11 through August 18 on myriad extreme weather events that spanned the globe and that just over 30% of these segments referenced climate change. But only 4% of Hurricane Ida coverage mentioned climate change.
This summer is no different. Fifty-seven percent of reporting on the most recent extreme weather events in August, including the heat wave that nearly buckled California’s power grid, mentioned climate change. Just a month later, climate change was rarely discussed in coverage of Hurricane Fiona, which decimated Puerto Rico.
Hurricane coverage should incorporate climate change. Like other extreme weather events, the science on the link to climate change is clear. And more than with any other extreme weather event, hurricane coverage is often wall-to-wall for a sustained period of time and repetitive. For days before Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida, one could tune into any network and receive very similar information about the projected strength, intensity, and impact of the storm. But the hours and hours of coverage could have made space to explain how Hurricane Ian fits into the climate crisis story, along with the multiple and concurrent extreme weather events that have caused death and destruction this year.
When asked by CNN’s Don Lemon to explain the connection between the phenomena of rapid intensification and climate change, the acting director of the National Hurricane Center deflected the question by responding, “We can come back and talk about climate change at a later time.” Wrong. The right time to talk about climate change and hurricanes is when national attention is on hurricanes.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; and NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press as well as all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for the term “Ian” within close proximity of any of the terms “storm, “hurricane,” “Cuba,” “Grand Cayman,” “Clearwater,” “St. Petersburg,” “Hillsborough” “Florida,” or “Tampa” from September 24, 2022, through September 28, 2022.
We counted and timed segments, which we defined as instances when Hurricane Ian was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of Ian. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed Ian with one another. We counted meteorologist and weather reports as segments.
We also timed passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned Ian without another speaker engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about Ian scheduled to air later in the broadcast. We rounded all times to the nearest minute.