Media Matters / Andrea Austria

Research/Study Research/Study

National TV news coverage of Hurricane Ian's aftermath continues to fall short on substantive discussions of climate-fueled extreme weather events

After making landfall on September 28, Hurricane Ian devastated Florida, causing approximately $67 billion in damage and killing at least 127 people. A storm this destructive has rightfully garnered a great deal of media attention. A Media Matters analysis found that from September 24-28, national TV news broadcasters — ABC, CBS, and NBC — and cable news networks — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC — aired 1,020 segments about the storm. And a new analysis finds that broadcast and cable TV news aired 583 additional segments about Hurricane Ian during the two weeks after the storm’s dissipation on October 2.

However, a deeper dive into the coverage illustrates how much work national TV news still must do to improve its extreme weather coverage. The problems with how news shows cover extreme weather events such as hurricanes are well documented. For example, during the 1,020 segments that aired from September 24-28, climate change was mentioned only 46 times. Seven of those mentions, which aired on Fox News, featured explicit climate denial.

The vast majority of post-Ian segments (533) aired during the immediate aftermath of the storm, from October 2-8. From October 9-16, just as the scale of the damage and recovery were becoming clear, coverage dropped precipitously, with national TV news shows airing just 50 segments.  

With a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of post-Ian coverage fell into a familiar pattern that focused on the parade of disaster imagery and human grief, peppered with rousing stories of human and pet rescues. Although this type of reporting is a common part of extreme weather coverage, it too often results in coverage that neglects to connect these disasters to the climate crisis, allows systemic failures exposed by extreme climate events to go unchallenged, and fails to demand accountability for those responsible for exacerbating climate change, as well as its impacts and injustices. 

Many broadcast and cable news shows will likely return to Florida occasionally to report on its recovery. These news programs must strive to invest the time and resources necessary to tell a more complete story that focuses on why storms like Ian are so destructive, how communities like Fort Myers became so vulnerable, and what solutions are being discussed to mitigate the harms of extreme weather in the future.

  • How national TV networks covered Hurricane Ian’s aftermath

  • From October 2-16, broadcast news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired 49 segments about Hurricane Ian, with 47 airing from October 2-8, and 2 airing from October 9-16. NBC led with 21 total segments about Hurricane Ian during the studied time period, followed by ABC with 16 segments, and CBS with 12 segments.

    Cable news shows on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC collectively aired 534 segments about Hurricane Ian from October 2-16, with 486 airing from October 2-8, and 48 airing from October 9-16. CNN led with 250 total segments about Hurricane Ian during the studied time period, followed by MSNBC with 152 segments, and Fox News with 132 segments.

    In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, news stories emerged about the role global warming played in the rapid intensification of the storm, the lack of flood insurance coverage in the areas most damaged by the storm, and the potential destabilization of Florida’s real estate market. The New York Times wrote:

  • Data now makes it clear that Ian is part of a trend: Climate change is making hurricanes and other disasters more destructive and pushing up the cost of home insurance until it’s out of reach for many people. More violent storms, flooding and wildfires in states like Louisiana and California are causing insurers to pull back from those markets.

    Ian’s aftermath shows how climate change is increasingly eroding the financial underpinnings of modern American life. Without insurance, banks won’t issue a mortgage; without a mortgage, most prospective homeowners can’t buy a home. With fewer buyers, home prices fall, and new development can slow or even come to a stop.

  • Though national TV news aired 45 segments that included a mention of climate change and 75 that mentioned the insurance woes facing many Floridians, these issues were rarely deeply discussed during coverage of Ian's aftermath. (Fox News accounted for 8 climate mentions during the studied time period, all of which cast doubt on the science of climate change. No broadcast news show mentioned climate during a segment about Ian.)

    However, there were a few notable segments that did a strong job of contextualizing how global warming made Ian more destructive, how the lack of insurance will make it much more difficult for large numbers of Floridians to rebuild, how vulnerable communities were left out of recovery and relief efforts, and how renewable energy could point the way forward for climate resilience. 

    The October 2 episode of CNN Newsroom Live featured climate resilience expert Kathy Baughman McLeod who discussed what the increased destructiveness of extreme weather events such as Hurricane Ian portends for climate-vulnerable areas where people can no longer afford to insure their homes.

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 2, 2022, episode of CNN Newsroom Live

  • The October 2 episode of MSNBC’s Alex Witt Reports featured a similar conversation with former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane scientist Jeff Masters, who discussed the ways global warming fuels the rapid intensification of storms like Hurricane Ian, the need to stop burning fossil fuel, and various approaches to climate adaptation such as building further inland.

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 2, 2022, episode of MSNBC's Alex Witt Reports

  • Climate scientist Suzana J. Camargo was interviewed during the October 2 episode of MSNBC’s American Voices with Alicia Menendez, in which she explained the science behind the rapid intensification of storms like Ian and the need to build climate resiliency by reducing fossil fuels use and improving infrastructure.

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 2, 2022, episode of MSNBC's American Voices with Alicia Menendez

  • MSNBC hosted climate scientist Michael Mann during the October 4 episode of Chris Jansing Reports to discuss climate attribution science, which found that climate change added 10% to Ian’s rainfall totals, and to urge the immediate decarbonization of our economy to stave off even worse climate harms. Mann explained, “If we don’t get at the source of the problem — which is our continued burning of fossil fuels, the warming of the planet, and the more energy there is to intensify these storms — if we don’t attack that problem, then there’s no amount of adaptation that is going to keep these impacts within our adaptive capacity.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 4, 2022, episode of MSNBC's Chris Jansing Reports

  • The October 4 episode of NBC Nightly News aired a strong segment about how poor communities and communities of color have been excluded from rescue and relief efforts.

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 4, 2022, episode of NBC Nightly News

  • CNN’s Don Lemon Tonight aired a segment on October 6 that also detailed how a historically Black community in Florida has been left out of rescue and relief efforts and why it is often harder for socially marginalized people to evacuate and rebuild after disasters.

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 6, 2022, episode of CNN's Don Lemon Tonight

  • The October 7 episode of CNN's New Day featured a segment from chief climate correspondent Bill Weir highlighting how one Florida community which runs on 100% solar power was largely spared from Ian’s wrath even though it is only 15 miles from Fort Myers, which was “ground zero for storm surge” during the hurricane. The segment highlighted the potential resiliency benefits of renewable energy and protected wetlands.

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 7, 2022, episode of CNN's New Day

  • Finally, the October 14 episode of CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper aired a segment about how some schools in Florida were reopening after Ian and used the occasion to explore how the climate crisis is disrupting learning for students nationwide.

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 14, 2022, episode of CNN's The Lead

  • National TV news coverage of Hurricane Ian’s aftermath largely obscured more than it enlightened

  • At this time of increasing climate peril, national TV news coverage of hurricanes is more known for meteorologists standing outside in their slickers and raincoats being blown around like air dancers than uncovering the systemic inequities that are exposed during disaster recovery.

    In addition to largely overlooking local issues that could have national ramifications, especially for other climate-vulnerable areas of the country, media coverage in the wake of Hurricane Ian fell short of connecting the story to the impacts and causes of the climate crisis. The average viewer who watched either national TV news coverage of Hurricane Ian or previous extreme climate events was unlikely to learn that climate change is driving year-round, catastrophic extreme weather events, that the burning of fossil fuels is leading to runaway global warming, or that the fossil fuel industry is opposing urgently needed actions that could stave off the worst consequences — even as the window for meaningful climate action rapidly closes

    National TV news is adept at showing the carnage of extreme weather events. But once the wind and rain have ceased, news shows pack up and rarely come back to report on the people who had their lives upended by disaster. What does this say about the current state of national TV news’ hurricane coverage?

    As Lyndsey Gilpin, founder and editor of Southerly, told Media Matters in 2020:

  • One of my frustrations with national coverage is that while they have an opportunity to put disasters or other events into context, oftentimes national reporters and editors instead feel like vultures, swooping in to see the damage and pick at what's left. They report on the worst aspects of what has happened, tell the whole world about it, and then never come back again.

  • What national TV news needs to do to improve its post-disaster coverage

  • Broadcast and cable news networks must consistently report that storms like Hurricane Ian are made worse through global warming, which is being primarily driven by the burning of fossil fuels and the reluctance of rich countries to transition immediately away from their fossil fuel economies.

    National TV news shows must also connect extreme weather events to policies and practices made by local, state, and federal officials that exacerbate climate impacts and hamper recovery. Lacking this context, viewers might believe that people who have their lives upended by climate change are just unfortunate victims of nature, rather than deliberate choices made by policymakers who are well aware of the risks climate change poses to their communities, but still refuse to prepare for future events. 

    CBS’ David Begnaud did exceptional reporting during and after 2017’s Hurricane Maria that shows another way national TV news can improve its post-disaster coverage: News shows must return to communities harmed by extreme weather events to report on their progress. According to Media Matters’ data, after Begnaud’s initial reporting on the hurricane, a period which lasted roughly two weeks, he returned to the island at least eight times in the first year of recovery. A review of that coverage shows that Begnaud repeatedly exposed the federal government’s inability to execute short-term and long-term recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

    In fact, when Hurricane Fiona hit last month, Begnaud was already there to report on how Puerto Rico was faring in the five years since Maria. During Fiona, he helped produce a nearly eight-minute segment that demanded accountability from the utility company currently tasked with rebuilding and improving Puerto Rico’s grid and amplified the voices of vulnerable people who face immediate risk when critical infrastructure fails. 

    Like many others grappling with rebuilding their lives after a devastating extreme weather event, Floridians in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian are facing heartbreakingly difficult decisions such as whether to leave their homes or stay and rebuild. These are complex and nuanced decisions informed by personal choice, public policy failures, and current climate realities, and national TV news must begin telling this complete story. Only then can we build public support for policies that protect and prepare all of us, especially the most vulnerable, from the worst consequences of climate change.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News; and NBC’s Today, Nightly News, 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,” “Tampa,” “Cayo Costa,” “Caribbean,” “Jamaica,” Georgetown,” “Carolina,” “Gulf of Mexico,” or “Virginia” from October 2, 2022, through October 16, 2022.

    We counted 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 did not count meteorologist and weather reports as segments.

    We also did not count 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, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about Ian scheduled to air later in the broadcast.