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  • Media failed on climate and extreme weather coverage last year. Will they do better in 2018?

    Al Roker gives us reason to be a bit optimistic

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS

    A version of this post was originally published on Grist.

    Everyone knows that the U.S. got gobsmacked by hurricanes last year. But if you rely on mainstream media for your news, you might not know that climate change had anything to do with it.

    In 2017, the major broadcast TV news programs mentioned climate change only two times total during their coverage of the record-breaking hurricanes that made landfall in the U.S. The climate-hurricane link came up once on CBS, once on NBC, and not at all during ABC's coverage of the storms, Media Matters found. All in all, major TV news programs, radio news programs, and newspapers mentioned climate change in just 4 percent of their stories about last year’s big hurricanes, according to research by Public Citizen. Many major media outlets also neglected to weave climate change into their reporting on 2017's heat waves and wildfires

    Will coverage in 2018 be any better?

    Al Roker has given us reason to feel slightly optimistic. Last week, Roker, the weather forecaster on NBC's Today show, demonstrated one good way to put an extreme weather event into proper context. While discussing the devastating flooding that recently hit Ellicott City, MD, he explained that heavy downpours have become more common in recent decades thanks to climate change, using a map and data from the research group Climate Central:

    As we roll into summer -- the start of the season for hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, and heat waves -- that's just the kind of connect-the-dots reporting we need.

    The New York Times helped set the scene with its recent map-heavy feature on places in the U.S. that have been hit repeatedly by extreme weather. "Climate change is making some kinds of disasters more frequent," the piece explained, and "scientists also contend that climate change is expected to lead to stronger, wetter hurricanes."

    But it's one thing to report on how climate change worsens weather disasters in general, as the Times did in that piece. It's another thing to report on climate change while covering a specific storm or wildfire, as Roker did -- and many journalists still seem to be squeamish about it. They shouldn't be; science has their back. In addition to what we know about the general links between climate change and extreme weather, there's a growing area of climate research, called attribution science, that measures the extent to which climate change has made individual weather events more intense or destructive.

    Consider the research that's been done on Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than 60 inches of rain on the Houston area this past August. Just four months after the storm, two groups of scientists published attribution studies about it: One study estimated that climate change made Harvey's rainfall 15 percent heavier than it would have been otherwise, while another offered a best estimate of 38 percent.

    Broadcast TV news programs did not report on this research when it came out, but they should have. And the next time a major hurricane looms or makes landfall, media outlets should make note of these and other studies that attribute hurricane intensity to climate change. Scientists can't make these types of attribution analyses in real time (at least not yet), but their research on past storms can help put current and future storms in context.

    Of course, in order to incorporate climate change into hurricane reporting, journalists have to be reporting on hurricanes in the first place. They failed miserably at this basic task when it came to Hurricane Maria and its devastation of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Maria got markedly less media coverage than hurricanes Harvey and Irma, according to analyses by FiveThirtyEight and researchers from the MIT Media Lab. The weekend after Maria made landfall, the five major Sunday morning political talk shows cumulatively spent less than a minute on the storm. And just last week, when a major new study estimated that Maria led to approximately 5,000 deaths in Puerto Rico, as opposed to the government's official death count of 64, cable news gave 16 times more coverage to Roseanne Barr's racist tweet and her canceled TV show than to the study.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Hurricane Maria overwhelmingly harmed people of color -- Puerto Rico's population is 99 percent Latino and the U.S. Virgin Islands' population is 98 percent Black or African-American -- so it's hard not to see race as a factor in the undercoverage of the storm. The authors of the MIT Media analysis attributed the lack of coverage to a “cultural gap” and suggested that more minorities working in media might have alleviated the problem. Not only are minorities less likely to be employed in newsrooms; they're also less likely to be included in media discussions of climate change.

    The lack of reporting on Maria sets a scary precedent, as climate disasters are expected to hurt minority and low-income communities more than whiter, wealthier ones. Unless mainstream media step up their game, the people hurt the most by climate change will be covered the least.

    Ultimately, we need the media to help all people understand that climate change is not some distant phenomenon that might affect their grandkids or people in faraway parts of the world. Only 45 percent of Americans believe climate change will pose a serious threat to them during their lifetimes, according to a recent Gallup poll. That means the majority of Americans still don't get it.

    When journalists report on the science that connects climate change to harsher storms and more extreme weather events, they help people understand climate change at a more visceral level. It's happening here, now, today, to all of us. That's the story that needs to be told.

  • Experts point out Trump’s budget “just doesn’t add up”

    White House budget proposal bases its revenue numbers on unrealistically high economic growth projections

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX MORASH

    Experts and journalists have pointed out that President Donald Trump’s budget numbers for the 2018 fiscal year do not add up, as they rely on unrealistic growth expectations. Nonpartisan experts say the gap between the White House’s estimates and the Congressional Budget Office’s is “the largest on record.”

    On May 23, the White House released its full budget proposal, which not only calls for kicking millions of working- and middle-class Americans off vital public assistance programs to make room for gigantic tax cuts for top income earners, but also bases its tax revenue projections on expected annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 3 percent by 2020. While right-wing media commentators have repeatedly defended trickle-down economic fantasies that predict unlikely levels of economic growth because of tax cuts for the rich, assuming such growth when determining revenue projections for the federal budget hides the true cost of Trump’s devastating budget plans.

    Experts and journalists quickly noted the absurdity of Trump’s projections in their coverage of the budget request. In a Washington Post blog, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, an economist at Harvard University, called the logic of Trump’s growth assumptions “simply ludicrous” and compared it to believing in the tooth fairy. On the May 23 edition of MSNBC Live, economist Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), told host Ali Velshi that Trump’s budget “does not add up at all” while noting that economic growth “is a function of the growth of the labor supply,” and that’s going to slow as the country grows older. Bernstein compared the chances of Trump’s projections coming true to the chances of a kitchen appliance coming to life to sing and dance, concluding that it is reckless for budget numbers to be “based on on these kinds of fairy tales”:

    On May 23, Vox correspondent Matt Yglesias pointed out that for anyone over 35, annual growth of 3 percent “doesn’t sound outlandish” because it is reminiscent of GDP growth during the 1990s. But Yglesias noted that if the United States did manage today to replicate 1990s-level growth in the labor force, productivity, and capital investment, “even under that rosy scenario” the growth rate would not hit 3 percent:

    In a May 24 column for Vox, economist and former Obama adviser Jason Furman explained in even more detail why 3 percent economic growth was “extremely unlikely,” with a specific focus on the slowing growth of the labor force. Furman also noted that the American economy is already growing faster than other advanced economies around the world, which have struggled to keep pace.

    As FiveThirtyEights Ben Casselman explained, the reason this level of growth is not currently attainable is that during the 1990s, the U.S. saw “rapid growth in its labor force and rapid gains in the productivity of that labor force.” By comparison, the baby boom generation today is retiring, not entering the workforce, which slows labor force growth, and “growth in productivity has slowed to a crawl” as electronic and internet-based technologies from the 1990s have matured.

    On May 24, The Washington Post’s Ana Swanson also looked at how realistic Trump’s growth projections would be with regard to labor force growth after Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters that much of the growth could come from getting the 6 million Americans marginally attached to the workforce to be fully employed. Yet, as Swanson noted, adding 6 million workers to the 160 million Americans already in the labor force would generate only 2 percent growth.

    Trump’s budget projections were not just debunked for lacking numbers based in reality; CBPP pointed out the historic gap between the White House’s economic growth projections and those of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). According to a May 22 CBPP blog post, Trump’s budget proposal projects $3 trillion less in deficit accumulation using its 3 percent growth model than it would using the CBO’s less optimistic economic forecasting. The difference is even more striking because, as CBPP pointed out, the gap between the White House’s proposal and CBO forecasting is “the largest on record”:

  • Media Can't Stop Pining For Another Trump Pivot

    ››› ››› JULIE ALDERMAN

    Media seized on President Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress as an opportunity for him to “pivot” or “reset” his administration. This canard that he would at some point change course was repeated throughout the presidential campaign, yet any shifts that occurred were always short-lived.