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STUDY: California TV Stations' Drought Coverage Gave Short Shrift To Climate Change

It has become increasingly clear that human-induced climate change is exacerbating California's historic drought and will continue to make droughts in the western U.S. more common and more extreme, as many studies and leading climate scientists have concluded. Yet a Media Matters analysis reveals that over a one-month period, the local television stations in California's two largest media markets addressed the role of climate change in less than two percent of their drought coverage, and when they did it was usually in segments that also included climate science denial.

  • California In Midst Of “Historic” Four-Year Drought

    California Has Been Experiencing Historic Drought Over The Past Four Years. This year, California entered its fourth consecutive year of drought, and 93 percent of the state is in severe, extreme, or exceptional drought, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A paper published last year in the journal Geophysical Research Letters concluded that the state's recent drought is the worst it has experienced in 1,200 years. [The New York Times, 3/17/15; The Washington Post, 4/1/15; The Guardian, 12/8/14]

    Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown And Top Lawmakers Announced Drastic, Unprecedented Steps To Deal With Drought -- Including First-Ever Mandatory Water Restrictions. On March 19, Governor Jerry Brown and top lawmakers announced a $1 billion drought relief package to provide short-term and long-term support for dealing with the drought. Two weeks later on April 1, Brown announced an executive order imposing the first-ever mandatory water restrictions for the state. In his announcement, the governor stated, “The world is changing. California's climate is changing, and we're taking another step.” [Los Angeles Times, 3/19/15; National Public Radio, 4/1/15]

    California TV Stations Largely Ignored Drought's Connection To Climate Change

    Less Than Two Percent Of Local Drought Coverage Addressed Role Of Climate Change. In the month following Brown's announcement of the drought relief package (March 19 to April 19), the ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox affiliates in Los Angeles and the Bay Area -- the two largest media markets in California -- aired 980 segments mentioning the drought. But only 15 of those segments -- less than two percent -- connected the drought to climate change. Seventy-three percent (11 out of 15) of the segments that discussed a link between climate change and the drought did so while covering Governor Brown's remarks on the topic on the March 22 edition of NBC's Meet the Press.

    Stations In California's Largest Television Markets Rarely Linked Climate Change To Drought

    Majority Of Segments Addressing Climate Change's Role In Drought Also Featured Climate Science Denial. Of the 15 segments that discussed a link between climate change and the drought, nine also featured climate science denial.* Those segments all referenced comments by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) alleging that “the alarmists on global warming [have] got a problem because the science doesn't back them up.” [NBC, Late Night with Seth Meyers, 3/16/15]

    Majority Of Segment Linking Drought To Climate Change Also Included Climate Science Denial

    Findings Expand Upon FAIR Study Showing National Broadcast Networks Largely Ignored “Global Warming's Fingerprints On The Drought.” Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) found that from March 1 to April 7, the morning, evening and Sunday news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC mentioned the role of climate change in just three percent, one percent, and two percent of their drought coverage, respectively. The study also stated that the networks “lean[ed] on Gov. Brown to deliver science,” and added: “Even when [climate change] was mentioned, the networks often preferred to portray climate science as in dispute.”[Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, 4/15/15]

    No Stations Covered Climate Link In More Than Four Percent Of Drought Coverage -- And Some Didn't Cover It At All

    Three Of Eight Local Affiliates Completely Ignored Drought's Link To Climate Change. Among the four biggest TV stations in the Bay Area media market, KNTV (NBC affiliate) aired six segments discussing the relationship between climate change and the drought, while KGO (ABC) and KTVU (Fox) each aired three and KPIX (CBS) aired none (KPIX did briefly discuss the climate impacts of one possible response to the water shortage). In the Los Angeles media market, KABC (ABC) aired two segments discussing the relationship between climate change and the drought, while KTTV (Fox) aired one, and both KCBS (CBS) and KNBC (NBC) aired none. 

    CA Local Television Drought Coverage By Station

    Bay Area NBC Affiliate: Six Of 162 Drought Segments Addressed Climate Change Link. NBC Bay Area affiliate KNTV mentioned the role of climate change in six of its 162 segments mentioning the drought (3.7 percent) -- the most among the eight stations examined in this study. This includes a discussion on the April 12 edition of Today in the Bay, in which the hosts brought up climate change only to downplay its importance relative to water usage. Anchor Vicky Nguyen stated: “We can't just blame climate change or global warming for this drought. People are going to have to start taking ownership and responsibility for the way we are all using water in this state.” The station's political analyst Larry Gerston added: “We can talk about climate change, it's important, of course, for many reasons, ranging from water scarcity to extreme weather. But whether it's a cause for drought is beside the point. ... Scientists have determined that we can't sustain ourselves given our growing population and the current uses of our water.” KNTV also aired multiple segments showing Governor Brown linking the drought to global warming, including on the March 23 edition of NBC Bay Area News, when anchor Kris Sanchez paraphrased the governor's remarks from Meet the Press. Sanchez stated: “The governor says a buildup of greenhouse gases is bringing on global warming and impacting the drought here in California.” [KNTV, Today in the Bay, 4/12/15; KNTV, NBC Bay Area News, 3/23/15; KNTV, Today in the Bay, 3/23/15, 3/23/15; KNTV, NBC Bay Area News, 3/22/15, 3/22/15]

    Bay Area ABC Affiliate: Three Of 158 Drought Segments Addressed Climate Change Link. Only three of Bay Area ABC affiliate KGO's 158 drought-related segments addressed its relationship to climate change. On March 22, KGO's ABC 7 News aired footage of Brown's Meet the Press interview, in which he stated: “We know there is some connection, and we know that this drought is just the kind of things that are absolutely inevitable in the coming years and decades.” In another March 22 segment about the governor's Meet the Press appearance, ABC 7 News anchor Katie Marzullo paraphrased Brown as saying that “the drought is traced to the buildup of carbon from coal and other sources.” On April 1, the station aired footage of Brown announcing the state's first-ever mandatory water restrictions at a press conference in which he stated: “It's hard to grasp where we are -- how much is a permanent climate change, how much is a temporary variation. ... It's a different world. We have to act differently.” [KGO, ABC 7 News, 3/22/15; KGO, ABC 7 News3/22/15; KGO, ABC 7 News, 4/1/15]

    Bay Area Fox Affiliate: Three Of 172 Drought Segments Addressed Climate Change Link. Out of 172 drought-related segments, Bay Area Fox affiliate KTVU aired only three addressing the connection to climate change -- all clips of Brown's remarks. This includes a March 22 segment in which anchor Ken Wayne described Brown's comments on Meet the Press, stating: “Governor Jerry Brown stressed the importance of implementing California's new drought relief plan as soon as possible.The governor explained the effects of climate change may become irreversible.” [KTVU, Channel 2 News, 3/22/15; KTVU, Channel 2 Morning News, 3/23/15, 3/23/15]

    Bay Area CBS Affiliate Didn't Address Link Between Drought And Climate Change, But Did Discuss Climate Impacts Of One Possible Response To Water Shortage. Bay Area CBS affiliate KPIX did not air any segments discussing the relationship between the drought and climate change, but did feature one segment addressing the climate impacts of building a desalination plant to deal with the drought-induced water shortage. In an April 12 segment about a meeting held by the East Bay Municipal Utility District, anchor Phil Matier stated that building a desalination plant “raises questions” because they “use huge amounts of electricity.” He added: “That electricity has to come from somewhere, and that increases carbon dioxide which in turn increases global warming.” [KPIX, KPIX 5 News Sunday Morning Edition, 4/12/15]

    Los Angeles ABC Affiliate: Two Of 94 Drought Segments Addressed Climate Change Link. Los Angeles ABC affiliate KABC addressed the relationship between climate change and the drought in two of its 94 drought-related segments. On the April 12 edition of Eyewitness Newsmakers, host Adrienne Alpert held a lengthy interview with state Senate president pro tempore Kevin De Leon, who said that the drought is being “exasperated because of large amounts of greenhouse gases, carbon that's being emitted into the environment.” He added that “climate change is having a severe impact on the state of California,” and called for “climate change policies” to address the issue. [KABC, Eyewitness Newsmakers, 4/12/15; KABC, Eyewitness News, 4/5/15]

    Los Angeles Fox Affiliate: One Of 63 Drought Segments Addressed Climate Change Link. Only one of Los Angeles Fox affiliate KTTV's drought-related segments addressed the relationship between the drought and climate change, courtesy of Brown. On the March 22 edition of Fox 11 Ten O'Clock News, KTTV reported that Sen. Cruz said the science does not support a connection between the drought and climate change. They then aired a clip of Brown's reaction to Cruz's comments, in which Brown stated: “That man betokens such a level of ignorance and a direct falsification of existing scientific data. It's shocking, and I think that man has rendered himself absolutely unfit to be running for office.” [KTTV, Fox 11 Ten O'Clock News, 3/22/15]

    Science Shows Climate Change Has Worsened California's Drought

    The New York Times: “California Drought Is Worsened by Global Warming, Scientists Say.” An April 1 New York Times article cited several scientists who concluded that climate change has exacerbated California's drought. The article quoted Princeton climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer, who said: “The drought is made of two components: not enough rain and too much heat. ... The rain deficit isn't clearly connected to climate change, but the planetary warming has made it more likely that the weather would be hotter in California.” The Times added that these hotter temperatures worsen droughts “by causing more evaporation from reservoirs, rivers and soil.” Citing the National Climatic Data Center's Deke Arndt and Stanford University professor Noah Diffenbaugh, the article also stated that warming caused by climate change makes it “highly likely that California and other parts of the Western United States will have more severe droughts in the future.” [The New York Times, 5/11/15]

    Think Progress: “Leading Scientists” At NOAA, NCAR, Columbia University And More Agree That Climate Change Is Worsening Drought. In a January 31, 2014 article, Think Progress editor Joe Romm interviewed multiple climate scientists at institutions such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and major universities who explained how climate change is worsening California's drought. One such scientist was James Hansen, who decades ago predicted climate change would lead to more severe droughts. Hansen told Romm: “Increasingly intense droughts in California, all of the Southwest, and even into the Midwest have everything to do with human-made climate change.” [Think Progress, 1/31/14]

    IPCC: Future Droughts In U.S. Southwest “Likely” As Temperatures Rise. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) found that "[t]he large scale drying in the Mediterranean, southwest USA, and southern Africa appear across generations of projections and climate models and is deemed likely as global temperatures rise," adding that this will increase “the risk of agricultural drought.” [IPCC, Working Group I contribution to the IPCC 5th Assessment Report “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis,” 9/30/13]

    National Climate Assessment: Southwest Droughts Projected To Become More Common And More Intense Due To Climate Change. The National Climate Assessment -- a report produced by a team of over 300 experts from NASA, NOAA, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the UK Meteorological Office, and several universities -- found that climate change “is exacerbating the major factors that lead to wildfire: heat, drought, and dead trees.” It added that climate change will make the Southwest region hotter and drier in the future. [U.S. Global Change Research Program, National Climate Assessment: Overview, accessed 5/12/15; U.S. Global Change Research Program, National Climate Assessment: Frequently Asked Questions, accessed 5/12/15; U.S. Global Change Research Program, National Climate Assessment, Southwest, accessed 5/12/15]

    Stanford University Study: Atmospheric Conditions That Created Drought More Likely To Occur Due To Climate Change. A research team led by Stanford climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh found that California's drought is “very likely” linked to man-made climate change. The researchers found that the so-called Ridiculously Resilient Ridge -- a region of high atmospheric pressure over the northwestern Pacific that scientists agree is the immediate cause of the drought -- is least three times as likely to occur in the present climate as in the preindustrial climate. [Stanford News, 9/30/14]

    UC Berkeley Paleoclimatologist: Current Drought Is Consistent With Climate Change. University of California, Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram stated in an interview last year that California's current drought is consistent with global warming, adding that the state has now entered a warming and drying trend:

    With Pacific Decadal Oscillation [the ever-changing temperature of surface water in the North Pacific Ocean], every 20 or 30 years we go in and out of these positive and negative shifts that affect precipitation and temperature. But now we're entering a period where it looks like we're getting drier even though it doesn't necessarily correspond to that cycle. It looks like a trend. It's warming and drying, and that's definitely a big concern for Western states. [UC Berkeley News Center, 1/21/14]


    Media Matters conducted an IQ Media search of local California television stations using the search terms “drought,” “drought and climate change,” and “drought and global warming” to determine which stations mentioned climate change in their coverage of the drought. Our analysis covered the time period from March 19 to April 19, 2015.

    Specifically, we examined coverage of California's drought on the ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox affiliates in the Los Angeles and San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose media markets, which are the state's two largest television media markets, according to Station Index. Our list included the following networks: KABC, KCBS, KNBC, KTTV, KGO, KPIX, KNTV, and KTVU.

    We included all segments devoted to the drought, as well as any substantial mentions (more than 10 seconds of a newscast) of the drought. We did not count teasers, passing mentions, weather forecasts, or repeat programs.

    Clips of all segments that discussed the relationship between the drought and climate change are available at the bracketed links above. 

    *The March 22 edition of KTVU's Channel 2 News referenced Sen. Cruz's remarks denying climate science in a separate segment that aired several minutes after the drought-related segment.