Two new studies highlight different troubling trends in climate change reporting. First, a disproportionate amount of climate journalism in 2017 was focused on the Trump administration's actions and statements, meaning that other climate stories got less coverage than they warranted. Second, media last year consistently failed to explain how events such as extreme weather are connected to climate change.
A research group at the University of Colorado-Boulder, the International Collective on Environment, Culture and Politics (ICE CaPs), produced the findings that illustrate how much climate coverage has been driven by President Donald Trump. It examined coverage last year in five major American newspapers: The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. In the 4,117 stories in those papers that mentioned “climate change” or “global warming,” the word “Trump” appeared 19,184 times -- an average of nearly 4.7 times per article.
The researchers argued that Trump-centric coverage can crowd out other reporting on climate change: “Media attention that would have focused on other climate-related events and issues instead was placed on Trump-related actions, leaving many other stories untold.”
Public Citizen, a non-profit organization that advocates for consumer rights, took a different approach in examining climate coverage in 2017. It searched a wide array of U.S. newspapers and TV and radio news programs for stories on extreme weather and pest-borne illness and then checked whether those stories mentioned climate change. The vast majority did not. At the high end, 33 percent of pieces on record heat included the words “climate change” or “global warming.” At the low end, just 4 percent of pieces discussing Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, or Nate mentioned climate change. Or, in other words, 96 percent of stories about 2017’s historic hurricane season did not note the role of climate change in making hurricanes more damaging.
Public Citizen's findings align with studies done by Media Matters last year that found TV news outlets repeatedly failed to report on how climate change is linked to more intense hurricanes, heat waves, and wildfires.
These two new alarming reports bolster the argument that we need better reporting on climate change. It is natural that Trump’s statements and actions as president will drive some climate journalism, particularly because his administration is unraveling a wide variety of climate protections. But too often the focus is on Trump himself instead of the ways his administration's moves will affect millions of Americans and others around the world. And the inordinate attention given to even Trump's minor utterances and tweets displaces national discourse around important aspects of climate change, such as its impact on extreme weather.
No matter what latest Trump scandal plays out on cable news or the front pages of newspapers, climate reporters still need to focus on how climate change is happening in the real world and how climate policy affects real people. In 2017, there were too many underreported or unreported climate stories. Will 2018 be any better?