2021 was a good year for corporate broadcast TV news climate coverage — here is how 2022 can be even better
Volume of climate coverage in 2021 more than tripled from 2020, but quality of coverage still has far to go
Media Matters’ 2021 annual study on how broadcast TV news covered climate change documented a threefold increase of climate coverage from 2020 — the highest volume of coverage since we began the study in 2011. It’s encouraging to see TV news setting this bar for volume of coverage, but if the networks want to maintain this bar and improve the quality of broadcast news climate coverage in 2022, here are few suggestions to consider:
Avoid backsliding on climate coverage by reporting on the climate change angle — it’s there
Though corporate broadcast TV news covered climate change in 2021 more than any given year, over a decade of documented coverage tells us that networks struggle to keep coverage consistent. Banner years like 2015, 2017, and 2019 were followed by abysmally low coverage in 2016, 2018, and 2020.
Corporate broadcast TV news can break that cycle by taking down the silo around climate reporting and connecting it to the other pressing headlines of the day. For example, the emergence of COVID-19 predictably took up much of the airwaves in 2020, even though there were numerous opportunities to incorporate climate reporting into wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic. At the scientific level, a warming world due to climate change will make it easier for deadly viruses and pathogens like the coronavirus to spread, and research in the U.S. has linked areas with bad air pollution to higher coronavirus death rates. Indeed, poorer and minority communities in the U.S. disproportionately bear the brunt of both the coronavirus and climate change. But the nightly news shows mentioned the connections between climate and the coronavirus only three times in 2020.
So far in 2022, the war in Ukraine, as expected, is dominating the news cycle. But maybe even more so than COVID-19, the connection between climate and the crisis playing out in Eastern Europe is impossible to sever — because at its core, it is a fossil fuel war. But in general, TV news has not linked the climate crisis and national security in its reporting on the war in Ukraine in any meaningful way.
Further reporting on actions being considered to reduce global dependency on Russian oil — mainly ramping up domestic production — have seemingly been done in a (climate) vacuum or without consideration of what it would mean for the drawdown of global carbon emissions that the scientific community warns is needed to avoid a climate emergency.
In fact, just days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report echoing that warning. The report got light attention from broadcast TV news — and in the cases where it was reported on, it was not contextualized within the broader discussion around oil production in the wake of the war.
Treat extreme weather as a year-round phenomenon
Coverage of extreme weather as climate events finally broke through in 2021. Media Matters analysis of discrete but often concurrent extreme weather events in 2021 — including the deadly heat wave that hit the Pacific Northwest, Hurricane Ida and raging fires that seemed to scorched all parts of the globe — showed a huge increase in coverage linking extreme weather to climate change.
Our annual broadcast study affirmed that extreme weather was a key driver of climate coverage, accounting for 35% of morning and nightly broadcast TV news climate coverage.
But this coverage — with some exception — was concentrated around the peak of the extreme weather season. In 2021, broadcast TV news hinted at the possible future of coverage as it began discussing the potential links between tornadoes and extreme cold weather and the changing climate.
To be sure, extreme weather is becoming a year-round phenomenon not limited to the droughts and megastorms that usually peak over a few months of the year. This year, wildfires are already starting, destructive tornadoes have caused chaos in New Orleans and across parts of Texas, and an ice shelf the size of Rome has collapsed in Antarctica after temperatures reached 70 degrees above normal. We are still months away from summer and the start of hurricane season that herald extreme weather in the U.S. Yet, these prescient events are getting little coverage.
Keep greenwashing in check — don’t launder fossil fuel industry propaganda
Last year’s climate coverage by corporate broadcast TV news featured a range of climate solutions, including discussion around electrifying the transportation sector and investing in clean energy sources like wind and solar. However, peppered throughout this coverage were segments on corporate commitments to climate change; actions preferred by fossil fuel industry like carbon capture and storage; and steps individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint.
On the surface, these types of approaches seem to align with an “using all the tools in the toolbox” approach to climate action. However, broadcast TV news should either qualify or avoid “corporations do good” and “go green” segments.
For example, during last year’s “climate week” in New York City, ABC’s Good Morning America ran an Amazon-sponsored segment about its and other corporations’ pledges to combat climate change. The important context missing from this segment was that “climate pledges” by corporations are often window dressing and don’t result in substantive action. Moreover, Amazon is a member of the Business Roundtable — a group of CEOs lobbying for corporate-friendly policy — and at the time of the segment, the companies in that coalition were lobbying to kill major climate legislation.
Segments on carbon capture and storage (a technology intended to capture and store carbon dioxide as it emerges from industrial sources) like the one on the September 9 edition of CBS This Morning did a decent job of airing some of the problematic aspects of this technology, including its exorbitant costs, limitations in reducing emissions, and how big polluters can exploit the technology to “off-set” their net emissions instead of actually reducing the pollution they put in the atmosphere. But not all coverage of this shiny technology does it justice.
NBC’s monthlong series on going green, which was part of its Earth Day coverage featured segments, for example, on how homeowners could reduce their carbon footprint. These segments are laudable, but they feed into an industry strategy to pin the responsibility of climate action on individuals versus the necessary systemic change (that would likely disrupt corporate business models). To improve these types of segments, networks can simply provide the context that individual action alone is not nearly enough to address the climate crisis.
Redefine who qualifies as an expert on the climate crisis
Guests who appear in climate segments often reflect who the network considers an authoritative voice on the subject. And for too long those voices have been prominently both white and male. As coverage starts to more clearly capture the far-reaching implications of unmitigated warming on, for example, agriculture, national security, public and mental health, and even where people decide to live, networks need to expand their idea of who is an authority and an expert on climate change and incorporate voices of farmers, doctors, city planners, and so on.
In that spirit, in 2021, Media Matters began tracking appearances by experts outside of the scientific community, categorizing their various fields to demonstrate that climate change is a multidimensional issue that touches many disciplines as well as those most impacted by the crisis. In fact, 20% of total guests — across nightly, morning, and Sunday morning political news shows in 2021 — were categorized as first responders or members of a frontline or impacted community. These voices can not just broaden our understanding of the crisis but provide input on how to address and adapt to it.
By approaching climate through a multidisciplinary lens and looking to these communities more often for their expertise and firsthand experience with climate change — broadcast TV news could resolve the problematic trend of climate coverage being dominated by white men.
In every climate change story, include what actions need to be taken to address the problem and who or what is obstructing those actions
While President Joe Biden’s various climate initiatives were a key driver of broadcast climate coverage in 2021 — accounting for 17% of morning and nightly news coverage — rarely were these initiatives woven into coverage related to climate impacts, including reporting on major extreme weather events.
When the remains of Hurricane Ida brought massive flooding to New York City and the surrounding area, including inundating parts of the subway system and other transit, TV news (much of it headquartered in the impacted area) questioned whether high population areas like New York City were prepared for climate change. Some coverage also tied in Biden’s proposed infrastructure package, which included spending to make infrastructure more resilient to climate impacts.
Notably, ABC’s chief meteorologist Ginger Zee covered the need for more resilient infrastructure during her coverage of Hurricane Ida’s impact on New York City and during a special report for the network as part of a series called “It’s Not Too Late,” which is featured on ABC’s streaming service.
But in general, climate action was decoupled from coverage of major climate impacts and extreme weather events. Even less common was discussion that identified the key barriers to passage of climate legislation. In October 2021, Big Oil executives appeared before the House oversight committee to testify about their industry’s efforts to erode the public consensus around climate change and thwart climate action. The hearings provided an explicit opportunity for networks to educate viewers about the role the fossil fuel industry has played in stunting a response to the climate crisis. Broadcast TV news provided a modest amount of coverage of the hearings. But every climate story should seek to answer the question: Why has the U.S. government — despite being alerted as early as 1988 — failed to act on climate change?
Finally — bring climate change home
The story of the extreme changes that are happening in the Antarctic and other far off places across the globe are important. But audiences also need to better understand how the ice melting thousands of miles away will impact them at home. They need language around the climate impacts they are already feeling but don’t know warming is the cause of yet. They need to see how other communities in the U.S. are adapting or what decision they are making to keep this and future generations safe — and they need to know what their government is or is not doing to act against this crisis. Broadcast TV news climate coverage can accomplish all those things — and if it wants to up its game in 2022, it should.