CNN Shake-Up Provides Opportunity For Improvement On Climate Change

Phil Kent, Chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc and Jeff Zucker, President of CNN WorldwideCNN founder Ted Turner said in 2011 that climate change is “probably the most serious ... problem that humanity has ever faced,” adding that we need to “increase the amount of the debate” to motivate people to take action.

Unfortunately, the network he created has often failed to live up to that goal, devoting minimal time to the issue even while reporting on its consequences. A recent study by the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage found that environmental stories accounted for only 0.36% of CNN's news headlines between January 2011 and May 2012, the lowest of any major TV news network. And when CNN does mention climate change, it too often ignores the role of human emissions and treats the science as a subject for debate.

But big changes are coming to CNN this year under the leadership of Jeff Zucker, the former head of NBC Universal who was brought on as the new president of CNN Worldwide in January. Zucker is shaking up CNN's lineup and shuffling personnel in an attempt to boost ratings. He also wants to see CNN “broaden the definition of what news is” beyond “politics and war” in order to stay competitive with other cable networks.

It remains to be seen whether CNN will take this opportunity to expand its focus to include substantive stories that it has typically overlooked, such as the environment and climate change. At NBC Universal, Zucker oversaw the launch of the network's "Green Is Universal" program, which aims to bring an “environmental perspective” to NBC's news and entertainment programs as well as company operations. Announcing the initiative, he emphasized the company's “responsibility ... in driving awareness” of environmental issues.

Now Zucker has the opportunity to implement this vision at CNN. Here's how we recommend he do it:

  1. Dedicate A Reporter To Environmental Issues. Drawing on his experience in entertainment television, Zucker has hired a veteran ESPN reporter for a new sports program and is reportedly looking to hire Hollywood reporters to expand CNN's entertainment coverage. CNN would likewise benefit from having a resident expert on environmental issues, particularly to navigate a subject as complex as climate change. This position could follow the model set by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a practicing neurosurgeon who regularly contributes to health and medical stories network-wide in addition to hosting his own weekend program. Similarly, CNN business correspondents Christine Romans and Ali Velshi inform the network's coverage of the economy. A dedicated environmental reporter would help the network avoid some of the oversights that have plagued its climate coverage in the past, and find new opportunities to highlight the issue. For instance, CNN special correspondent Philippe Cousteau-- the host of CNN's Going Green series --was the only person in 2011 to mention ocean acidification, another consequence of rising carbon emissions. But Cousteau's role is largely limited to CNN specials, and CNN's daily programming could benefit from regular use of his expertise.
  2. Report On Extreme Weather In The Context Of Manmade Climate Change. In January, CNN aired an hour-long special on how climate change will amplify the impacts of extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy. Despite the special's shortcomings, the network's decision to highlight this connection was commendable. But CNN also has an obligation to integrate climate change into coverage of relevant extreme weather disasters as they occur. A Media Matters analysis found that CNN largely overlooked climate change in its coverage of last summer's record-breaking heat waves, mentioning it in less than four percent of coverage. And although experts agree that climate change increases the risk of wildfires in the Western U.S., CNN mentioned climate change in only one percent of Western wildfire coverage. By reporting on the relationship between extreme weather and climate change, CNN can fulfill its responsibility to raise awareness of the issue and educate its audience about how climate change is impacting their lives.
  3. Turn To Experts, Not Misinformers. Despite the overwhelming consensus among climate experts that human activity is driving climate change, 66 percent of Americans believe there is “a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening.” CNN has perpetuated this misconception by treating climate science as a debate between two equal sides -- a fallacy called false balance. For example, in December CNN's Piers Morgan hosted Bill Nye and professional climate misinformer Marc Morano to "debate" climate science. A follow-up blog on called Morano an "expert" without noting that he has no scientific expertise and is paid by fossil fuel interests. When CNN attempts to provide "balanced" coverage on a topic where the facts fall strongly on one side, it only serves to generate further confusion among its viewers. CNN can avoid this problem by turning to experts -- instead of pundits and misinformers -- to discuss the facts about climate change. In the event that it becomes necessary to quote someone who denies the scientific evidence for instance, a politician who opposes legislative action to address climate change on the grounds that the problem is not real), CNN should be prepared to immediately counter falsehoods with facts.
  4. Hold Politicians Accountable. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Bill Nye told CNN's Carol Costello that he was "disappointed" in the media's failure to press the candidates on how they would address climate change. Indeed, CNN rarely mentioned climate change during the campaign cycle, and CNN's Candy Crowley neglected to mention it while moderating a town hall debate in October. These missed opportunities left CNN's audience in the dark on the candidates' positions. Going forward, CNN should press politicians to explain their position on climate change and discuss the impact of their energy policies on the climate crisis.