Mainstream media are continuing two troubling trends in their coverage of climate change, a pair of new reports finds. In 2018, media outlets too often failed to connect extreme weather to climate change, according to an analysis from Public Citizen, a progressive consumer advocacy organization. And researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder found that when major outlets did cover climate change, their reporting was too focused on President Donald Trump.
Public Citizen reviewed coverage of extreme weather events in 50 top U.S. newspapers, 32 online news sources, and major broadcast and cable television networks, analyzing how often that coverage made mention of climate change. Climate scientists have found that global warming is tied to more intense heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods, as well as aberrant weather events like polar vortexes. But Public Citizen found that many news stories neglected to explain this connection:
On the whole, the proportion of [extreme weather] pieces that mentioned climate change was disappointingly low. There was no climate-related form of extreme weather that the media connected to climate change in more than 35 percent of pieces. That high-water mark comes from articles discussing record drought. Extreme heat fared similarly, with 34 percent of pieces mentioning climate change. For hurricanes, the rate was just 7 percent.
Public Citizen’s report notes that coverage of climate change's role in extreme weather was better in 2018 than in 2017, but many outlets continued to miss the mark.
When it came to reporting on heat waves, newspapers and TV networks both showed improvement -- they mentioned climate change more often in their heat-wave stories in 2018 than in 2017 -- but not nearly enough. Thirty-three percent of newspaper articles about record or extreme heat connected it to climate change, up from 28 percent in 2017. Television news programs made the connection in 22 percent of their segments, compared to 10 percent in 2017. (A Media Matters analysis of broadcast coverage of a record-breaking heat wave in North America last summer found even worse performance.)
Coverage of wildfires also improved slightly in 2018, according to Public Citizen’s report. Top newspapers mentioned climate change in 29 percent of wildfire stories last year, compared to 19 percent in 2017. The online news outlets mentioned climate change in 28 percent of wildfire stories in 2018, up from 22 in 2017. And television networks connected wildfires to climate change in 21 percent of their segments last year, compared to 8 percent in 2017. Again, Media Matters documented even worse performance from broadcast TV news in connecting climate change to wildfires that happened last summer and in early November.
Similar patterns emerged in reporting on other extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall, flooding, and hurricanes: There was slight improvement, but as Public Citizen sums it up, “major news outlets fell short.”
Researchers at CU-Boulder's International Collective on Environment, Culture & Politics documented a different problem with climate coverage in the U.S.: an obsessive focus on Trump. The collective's Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO), which tracks media coverage in dozens of countries, produced a report summarizing its findings from 2018. In the U.S., MeCCO monitored five major newspapers and six major TV networks.
According to the research group, “Throughout the year (as in 2017) there has been continued prominence of news from US outlets on climate change or global warming associated with Donald J. Trump.” It found that the word “Trump” was used an average of nearly 4.5 times in each story about climate change, just slightly less than 2017’s average of 4.7 times. In fact, Trump was mentioned more than twice as often as the words “science,” “scientific,” or “scientist(s).” The result of this Trump-centric reporting was that “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,” according to MeCCO’s analysis. (Media Matters reached similar conclusions about climate journalism’s overemphasis on Trump in 2017 and 2018.)
There were some bright spots in climate coverage in 2018. Public Citizen highlighted an editorial collaboration in Florida called The Invading Sea -- involving the Miami Herald, The Palm Beach Post, the Sun-Sentinel, and public radio station WLRN -- that aims to increase awareness of sea-level rise and galvanize action to address it. The Public Citizen report also recognized great reporting by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press.
Despite these positive developments, the two reports show that news outlets need to improve their climate journalism in 2019. They should stop chasing Trump's every tweet and instead provide sustained, substantive reporting that explains the nature of the climate challenge, connects extreme weather events to climate research, and amplifies solutions to climate-related problems.