PBS NewsHour climate coverage in 2019
Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

PBS outperforms its corporate broadcast counterparts in 2023 climate coverage

How NewsHour raises the bar on broadcast climate reporting

In 2023, weekday editions of PBS’s nightly news program NewsHour aired nearly as many segments on the climate crisis as the nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC combined. Even though 2023 was the hottest year in recorded history, those networks scaled back their climate coverage. 

PBS' NewsHour has traditionally outperformed its broadcast counterparts in both the scope and depth of its climate coverage. In 2023, the show continued to raise the bar on quality climate coverage even though the volume of its coverage declined from the previous high-water mark years, 2021 and 2022.

  • PBS aired nearly as many segments on the climate crisis as ABC, CBS, and NBC combined

  • PBS’ NewsHour aired 122 climate segments in 2023. That figure is only 10 fewer than the combined 133 segments aired by ABC's (41), CBS' (40), and NBC’s (52) nightly news programs.

    While NewsHour vastly outperformed its network news counterparts, the show aired fewer climate segments in 2023 (133) than it did in 2022 (147) or 2021 (151). That decline in coverage was consistent with nightly news programs from ABC, CBS, and NBC.

    Even so, the quality of NewsHour stands out in several ways.

  • PBS more consistently connected climate change to fossil fuels

  • Only 12% of climate segments on all corporate broadcast news, or 52 out of 435, mentioned “fossil fuels.” NewsHour mentioned “fossil fuels” in 29% of its coverage, or 35 of its 122 segments.

    Like its corporate broadcast counterparts, reports on COP28, the United Nations’ annual climate summit, which took place in Dubai from November 30 through December 13, helped drive discussion of fossil fuels.

    NewsHour's coverage of COP28 included mentions of fossil fuels when they reported on the conference participants’ goal of phasing out fossil fuels around the globe and on the controversy surrounding the influence of fossil fuel interests on the conference.

    For example, during an interview with the president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council on December 13, NewsHour anchor William Brangham questioned the influence of fossil fuels on international climate action by highlighting the oil and gas financial interest of the country hosting the summit — the United Arab Emirates, a leading oil producer. In response to news that the international community has for the first time explicitly called for the transitions away from fossil fuels, Brangham observed:

  • “I hear what you are saying about fossil fuels. But it is remarkable that 30 years into these summits, we are finally now getting around to mentioning this. It is like having back in the 60's, you know, conferences about lung cancer and taking 30 years to talk about weaning ourselves off cigarettes. It is progress, but baby steps.” 

  • Video file

    Citation From the December 13, 2023, edition of PBS' NewsHour

  • PBS corrected conservative climate misinformation

  • The United Nations has recognized the role disinformation is playing in delaying climate action. And disinformation consistently pollutes the media landscape during extreme weather events.

    In most instances, broadcast networks — with some notable exceptions — do not parrot climate mis- and disinformation. However, they did not go out of their way to debunk false narratives that have gained traction in right-wing media.

    Meanwhile, in 2023, NewsHours explicitly and implicitly corrected prominent climate misinformation. For example:

    • The June 29 edition of NewsHour aired a segment about a historic Texas heatwave straining the state’s energy grid. During the segment, anchor William Brangham asked an energy expert to comment on the false narrative circulating through right-wing media suggesting renewable energy is not reliable: “One of the things I was struck by in my research is how Texas is really a leader in renewable energy, and solar farms growing like crazy in Texas and saving a ton of money for ratepayers there,” Brangham said. “But I understand that there's also a lot of conservative pushback, arguing that renewables are not reliable and they`re not sturdy for the future. What does the record show on that front?”
    • During the July 6 edition, NewsHour aired a segment on the decline of North Atlantic right whales, in which correspondent Miles O’Brien dispelled the pervasive right-wing media narrative that offshore wind development is responsible for recent  whale deaths by delving specifically into what scientists warn are endangering the whales: ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and climate change which is changing their migrant patterns and putting them in harm's way: “Cape Cod Bay is part of one of the fastest-warming ocean regions on the planet, the Gulf of Maine, and so the plankton picture is changing here. It may be the reason the whales began altering their migration patterns in 2015, sending them into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence,” O’Brien said. “Scientists were caught off guard, and before they could suggest regulations to protect the whales in their new feeding area, a dozen were killed by ship strikes and entanglements with fishing gear.”
    • The December 4 edition of NewsHour aired a segment about “deep-red Texas” becoming the biggest producer of solar and wind energy in the country. During the report, William Brangham noted that “renewables were falsely blamed” for worsening the impact of winter storm Uri in 2021, a claim that had spread widely through right-wing media and particularly on Fox News: “During 2021's paralyzing winter storm in Texas, which caused widespread blackouts and left 246 people dead, renewables were falsely blamed for making things worse,” Brangham narrated. “But a subsequent analysis showed it was un-winterized fossil fuel plants, principally natural gas, that were responsible for most of the blackouts.”
  • PBS covered climate stories that ABC, CBS, and NBC’s nightly news programs mostly ignored

  • In August 2023, a Montana judge sided with 16 plaintiffs ranging in age from 5 to 22 who argued, per the Associated Press, that “state agencies were violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by permitting fossil fuel development without considering its effect on the climate.”

    PBS was the only broadcast nightly news program to cover the landmark case more than once. On June 12, NewsHour reported on the case getting underway. In a June 19 segment, NewsHour interviewed one of the young people involved in the case. On back-to-back nights, August 14 and 15, NewsHour reported on the outcome of the case. Then, on August 15, William Brangham reported on the ruling and explained its broader implications:

  • The ruling means that the state legislature, which, in Montana, is GOP-dominated and very friendly to the fossil fuel industry, they will determine how the state goes forward in assessing whether carbon emissions should deter or allow a fossil fuel project to go forward.

    I talked today with a guy named Michael Burger. He runs the Sabin Center for Climate Study at Columbia University. And he argues that the longer impact, the broader impact of this ruling will be nationwide, because the findings of fact in this case were affirmed by the judge that said, ‘Climate change is real, that emissions drive climate change, that climate change can be harmful, and that local emissions in your own state can damage the people who live in that state.’

  • Media Matters found that even though the Inflation Reduction Act and a number of its most important climate provisions went into effect in 2023, the law earned just 6 mentions on nightly news broadcasts the entire year.

    In 2022, by comparison, the year the bill passed, approximately 35 segments across morning news, nightly news, and Sunday morning political shows mentioned the Inflation Reduction Act – 12 of those mentions aired on nightly news.

    In 2023, PBS was alone when it reported that the bill’s historic climate investments were already transforming the U.S. energy sector a year later. 

    On August 17, NewsHour’s Brangham asked energy expert and political scientist Leah Stokes to reflect on the one-year anniversary of the IRA — which he described as “single biggest investment in addressing climate change” — and to describe how the bill was impacting the energy economy so far. In part she explained:

  • And so we can see upwards of $275 billion of private investments in everything from manufacturing batteries in the United States, to recycling those batteries, to solar projects, to wind projects, and wind manufacturing. I mean, we have seen something like 175,000 new announced jobs. And that's just on the corporate side.

  • In 2023, no corporate broadcast nightly news program discussed climate change in the context of the 2024 election

    For its part, NewsHour connected the potential implications of the election for climate policy in at least 3 segments, including correcting climate denial that appeared in the first Republican presidential primary debate; linking Republican opposition to climate action to candidates’ dependence on contributions from fossil fuel interests; and connecting extreme weather events to candidate’s track record on climate change.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the Nexis and SnapStream databases for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Saturday Morning, Sunday Morning, CBS Evening News, Weekend News, and Face the Nation; NBC’s Today, Sunday Today, NBC Nightly News, and Meet the Press; Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday; and PBS’ NewsHour for any of the terms and any derivations of the terms “climate,” “global warming,” “global heating,” “global temperatures,” “warmer planet,” “warming planet,” “planet warms,” “warmer globe,” “warming globe,” “globe warms,” “rising temperatures,” “hotter temperatures,” “green new deal,” “emissions,” “greenhouse gases,” or “net zero” from January 1 through December 31, 2023.

    We included any segment when climate change was the stated topic of discussion, as well as news rundowns that included a substantial mention of climate change, which we defined as a paragraph or more of a news transcript or a block of uninterrupted speech by a host, anchor, or correspondent. We also included weather reports, which we defined as instances when climate change was mentioned in an extreme weather report by a meteorologist in front of a green screen. We also included instances of a guest mentioning climate change in a network correspondent segment if the context of the segment was clearly about a climate, energy, or environmental issue.

    When counting guest appearances, we included network employees — including paid contributors and analysts — if they appeared as part of a roundtable discussion on a Sunday morning political show. We did not include teasers if they were for segments that aired later during the same program. This review does not include “person on the street” interviews, in which an unnamed person in a transcript spoke briefly as a guest; however, in previous iterations of this study, we did include “person on the street” interviewees as guests.

    We timed identified segments using the Snapstream or Kinetiq video databases, or YouTube if a network posted the segment to that website.

    We rounded all times to the nearest minute and all percentages to the nearest whole number. To determine the total program time, we averaged running time without commercials for a sample of each program