Earlier this week, Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico’s southern coast, bringing what has been described as “catastrophic flooding” and landslides. President Joe Biden issued an emergency declaration, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate disaster relief efforts. The storm sparked an island-wide power outage for at least 1.5 million Puerto Ricans and left more than 760,000 people without access to clean running water. As of Thursday, an estimated 1 million residents still did not have power, though recovery is ongoing at this time. The storm hit the island almost five years to the day since Hurricane Maria killed an estimated 3,000 people in the U.S. territory, resulting in $90 billion worth of damage.
From the time the hurricane first formed on September 14 through September 20, corporate broadcast morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, and all original programming on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News covered the hurricane across 233 segments, but climate change was discussed in just 7. (The review included Fox News @ Night, which aired at midnight on September 21.)
ABC was the only broadcast news network to link Hurricane Fiona to climate change
Broadcast news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC covered the story for a total of 1 hour and 35 minutes across 61 segments. ABC aired the most segments on the hurricane, 26 in total. ABC was also the only broadcast channel to mention climate change, though it did so very briefly.
Speaking on the ground in Puerto Rico on the September 19 edition of ABC’s World News Tonight, ABC News correspondent Victor Oquendo said that climate change is “supercharging the amount of rain hurricanes now bring."
CNN led on climate coverage
Cable news was not much better. CNN slightly outperformed other networks, mentioning climate change in 5 segments, compared to 1 segment from MSNBC and 0 from Fox News. CNN’s coverage was also more substantive. The network also distinguished its climate coverage from that of other national TV news networks in last month’s devastating floods in Pakistan, which displaced 30 million people.
Cable news segments that mentioned climate change in connection with Hurricane Fiona only made up a tiny fraction of total coverage, with just 6 out of 172 segments mentioning climate change.
On broadcast news, the amount of time devoted to covering the hurricane actually decreased from 18 minutes on September 17 to 10 minutes on September 19, even though the storm made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 18. On the morning of September 19, in the direct aftermath of the storm, no morning broadcast shows covered the situation in Puerto Rico, instead shifting their attention to the royal funeral. Though cable news shows spent more time on the hurricane as time passed, they did not mention it until 1 p.m. on September 19. Instead, they focused on Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.
Segments that did mention climate change were still weak
Many of the climate change mentions on broadcast and cable were brief statements about how Puerto Rico’s energy grid must be resilient to climate change. It is crucial for networks to recognize the role climate change plays in extreme weather events, but to truly meet the moment, national TV news networks must also tell a more complete story about how these extreme weather events are connected to each other and driven by our continued reliance on fossil fuels. Several segments that mentioned climate change incorporated parts of this picture, but none did it all.
The best examples acknowledged how renewable energy can help make Puerto Rico more resilient. On CNN Newsroom, Sergio Marxuach, an economist and lawyer from Puerto Rican think tank Center for a New Economy, told host Jim Sciutto that there is “a lack of agreement as to how to precisely rebuild the grid to make it more resilient.” Marxuach said there is a “debate” about the benefits of renewables versus natural gas, and added that “the fossil fuel lobby is very strong everywhere.”
On CNN Newsroom with Jim Acosta, climate correspondent Bill Weir rightly pointed out that making the grid more resilient means transitioning to renewable energy, yet Puerto Rico still gets 97% of its energy from fossil fuels.
National TV news also needs to help viewers understand that the category of a hurricane is not the only factor that predicts how much damage it will do. Hurricane Fiona was classified as a Category 1 storm, while Maria was a Category 4, but both storms caused massive amounts of damage. The category of a storm is determined by its maximum sustained wind speed, but climate change is causing hurricanes to dump more rain on affected areas. This is a major problem, as flooding from heavy rainfall and storm surges are more likely to cause deaths and damage during a hurricane or tropical storm than high winds. On MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes, host Chris Hayes touched on this, pointing out that “with this storm, the issue is less the wind, rather the rain which is falling at astronomical record rates.” He did not, however, connect this phenomenon to climate change.
Failing to tie this crisis to climate change — and to mention specific solutions — does a disservice to Puerto Rico’s recovery and its ability to prepare for and mitigate increasingly intense storms. It also fails to hold big polluters accountable for driving climate change, which hits vulnerable populations, like those in Puerto Rico, the hardest. Additionally, the fact that Hurricane Fiona received less coverage than events outside of the U.S. and previous climate disasters in the contiguous U.S., such as Hurricane Ida, speaks volumes about how the media views Puerto Rico. This journalistic neglect perpetuates the massive challenges that Puerto Ricans face as they attempt to salvage their lives once again.
Hurricane Fiona is expected to hit Canada on Saturday and it has the potential to be the country's strongest ever storm. National TV news has the opportunity to improve its climate coverage while continuing to follow developments in Puerto Rico.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press as well as all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for the term “Fiona” within close proximity of any of the terms “Puerto Rico,” “Dominican Republic,” “San Juan,” or “U.S. Virgin Islands” from September 14, 2022, through September 20, 2022. We included the midnight airing of Fox News’ Fox News @ Night, which aired on September 21, 2022.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when Hurricane Fiona was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of Fiona. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed Fiona with one another. We counted meteorologist and weather reports as segments.
We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned Fiona without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about Fiona scheduled to air later in the broadcast. We rounded all times to the nearest minute.
Within each segment, we reviewed whether the transcript mentioned the terms “climate” or “global warming.”