What Nightly News Shows Can Learn From PBS' Climate Coverage

A Media Matters analysis found that the nightly news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC largely ignored climate change in 2012, despite record-breaking temperatures and a series of extreme weather events in the U.S. By contrast, PBS NewsHour devoted almost twice as many segments to climate change as the other networks combined.

When the National Climatic Data Center announced Tuesday that 2012 was the hottest year in recorded history for the contiguous U.S., broadcast networks admirably devoted segments connecting the announcement to climate change. But for most of the year they turned a blind eye to climate change, even while reporting on its consequences. Together, the nightly news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC devoted only 12 segments to climate change in 2012. PBS' coverage stood out, with its nightly news program dedicating 23 segments to the issue:

PBS' coverage included interviews with 29 climate scientists -- more than ABC, CBS and NBC combined. In September, the program made the mistake of seeking false balance in its reporting, giving non-expert Anthony Watts a platform to cast doubt on the science of climate change. PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler later criticized the segment, noting that it is “wrong to create an artificial or false equivalence” between the views of climate “skeptics” and the established science. But in the majority of its coverage, PBS acknowledged the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet and turned to climate experts to educate its audience on the causes and impacts of climate change.

In July, for example, PBS NewsHour hosted National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist Kevin Trenberth to discuss the connection between climate change and the extreme heat and massive wildfires occurring in the West. The following week, National Climatic Data Center Director Thomas Karl was interviewed on the role of manmade climate change in extreme weather events around the globe. And in August, PBS interviewed NASA scientist James Hansen on his findings that climate change has increased the probability of heat waves, wildfires and other extreme weather. These segments were compelling and informative, and rightly treated climate change as a reality rather than a political issue up for debate.

PBS NewsHour covered a broad range of climate change stories in 2012, from international climate negotiations to the local impact of rising temperatures on cherry farmers in Michigan and salmon fishermen in the Pacific Northwest. Other networks should take note, and stop passing up opportunities to inform the public on climate change.