On Sunday, August 29 -- 16 years to the day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall -- Hurricane Ida slammed into Louisiana.
A Media Matters analysis found that over a 96-hour period from August 27-30 -- during which Ida rapidly intensified to a Category 4 hurricane and knocked out power for more than 1 million in Louisiana -- corporate broadcast and cable news shows rarely connected the devastating storm to our dangerously warming climate. Just 4% of the combined 774 total TV news segments on Hurricane Ida mentioned climate change.
Scientists have repeatedly warned that global warming is making storms like Ida stronger and wetter and even proved the extent to which human-caused warming has increased the damage caused by specific storms. Before Ida even hit land, climate scientists were warning that the storm could rapidly supercharge due to the warm ocean water it would pass over in the Gulf of Mexico.
The storm intensified so quickly that it hindered evacuation efforts, particularly for those without resources or transportation . In fact, the impossibility of evacuation in the face of a life-threatening storm is just one of the ways climate-fueled events, like hurricanes, disproportionately affect marginalized communities and communities of color. With few exceptions, this reality was not part of the Hurricane Ida coverage.
- Corporate broadcast TV outlets — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 93 segments about Hurricane Ida during morning and evening news programs from August 27-30. Only 5 of these broadcast news segments referenced climate change.
- Of the 5 climate mentions, ABC had 3 mentions, while CBS and NBC contributed one each.
- Cable TV news outlets -- CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC -- aired a combined 681 segments about Hurricane Ida during all original programming from August 27-30. Only 4% (29) of cable news segments referenced climate change during their Ida coverage.
- Of the 29 climate mentions, CNN had 5 mentions, Fox News mentioned climate twice, and MSNBC had the most out of all networks with 22.
Corporate TV news largely failed to cover Hurricane Ida as a climate story
Coverage of Hurricane Ida by corporate TV news was extensive. 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. 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 communicating the connection to the climate crisis and making viewers more conversant about what stronger and more frequent storms mean for those who live in climate sacrifice zones such as southeastern Louisiana. At this point, to not do so is media malpractice.
Early indications of the storm's intensity, followed by wall-to-wall coverage, offered ample opportunity for networks to provide this type of in-depth coverage, but only 34 segments made even a passing mention of climate change. The vast majority of mentions were on MSNBC, with 65% of segments mentioning climate airing on the network -- though segments mentioning climate still made up only 9% of the network’s total Ida segments. Fifty-eight segments mentioned the storm’s rapid intensification -- going from a Category 1 to a Category 4 in less than 24 hours -- which is a clear climate signal, but they did not characterize it that way.
Some of the most substantive segments on the relationship between Hurricane Ida and climate change were aired on CBS and MSNBC.
The Sunday, August 29, edition of MSNBC’s The Mehdi Hasan Show featured climate scientist Michael Mann, who, alongside former Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate, discussed both the relationship between Ida and climate change and the role of warming in driving the unprecedented increase in hurricane intensity in recent years. In addition to connecting the storm to climate science, host Mehdi Hasan also linked it to climate action:
MEHDI HASAN (HOST): Michael, at what point do we as a society look at the scenes on our TV screens, look at how once-in-a-hundred-year events are now once-in-10 or once-in-five-year events, and decide to take action on the biggest issue of our time? A lot of these states being pummeled by climate-induced disasters are red states filled with — or run by — climate deniers.
CBS chief meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli joined the host of CBS This Morning for the Monday, August 30, edition to explain the connection between Ida and climate change. Berardelli also put the myriad extreme weather events experienced by millions of Americans this summer — wildfires, heat and drought — into context with the warnings being issued by the scientific community.
Importantly, Berardelli ended the segment by pointing to “the most vulnerable people, the ones that are suffering the most, and they contribute the least to climate change.”
Even while individuals like Berardelli consistently connect climate to extreme weather, as a whole the Hurricane Ida coverage continues a multiyear trend of broadcast and cable TV news failing to contextualize devastating storms within the increasingly dire climate emergency. In 2017, broadcast news shows aired only four total segments that discussed climate change in the context of that year’s extreme weather events, including just two segments that mentioned climate change in the context of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, or Maria. None of the broadcast networks’ news reports mentioned climate change in coverage of the 2018 hurricanes, which included Hurricanes Florence and Michael. In 2019, broadcast TV news aired only one segment that mentioned climate change in a week of coverage of the year’s most devastating storm, Hurricane Dorian. And in 2020, only one of the combined 93 segments by broadcast and cable about Hurricane Laura mentioned climate even though it was the most powerful hurricane to hit Louisiana in 150 years, while only 3% of segments about Hurricane Sally, none of the broadcast outlets’ segments on Hurricane Delta, and only one of 30 segments on Zeta mentioned climate change.
Notably, TV news coverage of extreme weather events this summer has vastly improved over previous years. In terms of using science to link extreme weather to the climate crisis, the Ida coverage represents a setback to recent reporting. That said, the Ida coverage did offer some groundbreaking climate justice coverage.
TV news, with a few notable exceptions, did not report on Ida through a justice lens
Climate-fueled events like Ida affect everyone, but those on the front lines of the climate crisis have far fewer resources to adapt, evacuate, and rebuild after devastating disasters. The fact that poor communities and communities of color bear the brunt of the climate crisis is chronically undercovered by TV news, particularly in moments when those impacts are most stark.
A Media Matters analysis of coverage of seven hurricanes and one tropical storm that occurred between 2017 to 2019 found that none of the 669 corporate broadcast evening news segments about these storms explicitly discussed their outsized impact on low-income communities or communities of color.
The Ida hurricane coverage -- perhaps for the first time -- offered a glimpse of what climate justice coverage by TV news programs can and should look like.
The Sunday editions of ABC’s Good Morning America and MSNBC’s PoliticsNation brought climate justice into coverage of Hurricane Ida while the national focus was on the storm. ABC’s meteorologist Ginger Zee during her weather report turned to a segment produced to mark the 16 years since the day Katrina hit. In addition to explicitly addressing the problems with the widespread tendency to compare the two storms, the segment focused on the “geographic inequities” that made flooding worse for black communities in New Orleans during Katrina and the underlying socioeconomic inequality and racist policies that continue to make it harder for those communities to return and rebuild.
During the PoliticsNation segment, host Al Sharpton noted that “climate disasters are not equal opportunity events” and went on to reference a report by Scientific American on how flooding disproportionately harms Black neighborhoods. Then he asked guest Atima Omara, founder and president of Omara Strategy Group: “Is climate action a racial justice issue?”
In part, these segments were standouts because they were exceptional in framing these increasingly deadly storms around justice. Going forward, networks need to adopt that approach wholesale. Climate change helps us make sense of what is happening, but if the media doesn’t start reporting on whom it's happening to and why, then climate policies and resiliency measures will only deepen the inequality borne by those who “have contributed least to climate change.”
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity to discuss inequity was in the evacuation process -- a story that was embedded in most of the hurricane coverage on Sunday. The national TV news networks focused a lot of attention on families and individuals that chose to ride out the storm, instead of on those who were left with little choice but to stay. But there were some good examples of coverage that acknowledged the complicated factors behind why people don’t evacuate. On Sunday, August 29, MSNBC’s Alex Witts Reports offered at least two examples of such coverage: one interview with a “gentleman who was trying to leave town, had family members that were working and couldn't leave, so he chose to stay behind,” and another where NBC News correspondent Morgan Chesky mentioned that despite the mandatory evacuation, many people “either couldn't afford to or are choosing to stay,” before sharing a story about family forced to stay behind because the father had recently contracted COVID-19 in between vaccine doses.
Coverage beyond the wind and the rain
For three days, and on Sunday in particular, one could tune into any network and receive very similar information about the strength, intensity, and physical impact of Ida on homes, business, and roads against the background of familiar storm-damage images. But the best coverage endeavored (or should endeavor) to tell us something new or explain how the story of Hurricane Ida fits into other pressing stories like the climate crisis, but also infrastructure, the pandemic, or the state of our preparedness and ability to respond to multiple and compounding emergencies.
It was widely reported on Sunday that Hurricane Ida made landfall near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, which means very little to most but is a hub for fossil fuel infrastructure that provides up to 15% of the country’s domestic oil. Many reporters noted that connection, but they reported it without noting the irony. Rather than serving as a side note, these connections should spur conversations -- if not while the storm is happening, certainly after -- unpacking not just how our dirty energy system is vulnerable to climate-fueled events, but also how it fuels these events.
Some of the best coverage was reporting that highlighted how Hurricane Ida, and by extension climate change, threatened efforts to respond to the COVID-19 surge in the affected area. For many, the storm and the pandemic are a compounding crisis -- well understood by residents, but perhaps new for a national audience unaware of the devastating strain this coronavirus surge is putting on states like Louisiana and Mississippi.
To watch hurricane coverage by TV news is to hear ad nauseum about the wind speed, the storm surge, and the expected accumulation of rainfall. These things are important to document and are done by dedicated journalists and TV crews, but networks should expand their coverage beyond the meteorological phenomena. In these moments, before attention is pulled elsewhere, there is so much more to learn and so much more that could be said.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ This Morning and Evening News, and NBC’s Today and Nightly News and all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “hurricane,” “storm,” or “Ida" from August 27 through 30, 2021.
We counted segments, which we defined as instances when Hurricane Ida was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of Hurricane Ida in segments about other topics. We defined significant discussion as two or more speakers discussing Hurricane Ida with one another.
We then reviewed each segment for whether any speaker connected Hurricane Ida to climate change or whether the segment included discussion of the storm’s impact on marginalized communities.