In 2019, broadcast news programs produced more climate coverage than the previous year. But it’s still far from enough.
A new report from Media Matters for America found that nightly news programs and four Sunday morning political shows spent a combined 238 minutes reporting on climate change in 2019, compared to 142 minutes in 2018. That’s a 68 percent increase, but four hours of coverage all year on the gravest existential threat humanity has ever faced is hardly something to celebrate.
“Climate coverage as a whole still made up only 0.6 percent of overall corporate broadcast TV nightly news in 2019, showing that these programs’ climate coverage does not adequately reflect the urgency and severity of the climate crisis,” the report says.
The researchers analyzed four nightly news programs on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS, and four Sunday morning politics shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. Of these networks, CBS drove much of the increased coverage. The network spent more time on climate change than ABC and NBC combined.
Climate strikes and protests, Amazon Rainforest fires, new climate legislation such as the Green New Deal, and climate becoming a top-tier issue in the Democratic primary were all large drivers of last year’s increase in climate coverage. But climate coverage still comprised well under 1 percent of programming, and the quality of that programming was “generally shallow.”
For instance, though the words “climate change” were mentioned 16 times in segments on extreme heat and 14 times in segments about general extreme weather, “the networks did a pretty poor job overall in discussing the links between climate change and specific extreme weather events,” the report says.
Maybe networks are spending so little time on the climate crisis because they’re not spending enough time talking to people who understand its urgency. The analysis found that just 22 percent of guests interviewed or featured in broadcast climate coverage were scientists. And networks also did a truly dismal job of giving voice to people from communities on the frontlines. Just 10 percent of guests featured or interviewed were people of color, even though black and brown folks face disproportionate effects of environmental degradation both in the U.S. and abroad. Further, only 27 percent of guests were women, even though studies show that 80 percent of people displaced by climate crises are women, and that climate change dramatically increases the likelihood that women will face violence.
Last year did bring us important feats for climate journalism of all kinds, just not on network news. Vice started Tipping Points, a series of stories by people on the frontlines of the crisis, Emily Atkin launched her truly excellent newsletter HEATED, and Columbia Journalism Review and the Nation launched Covering Climate Now, an initiative to push newsrooms to commit to covering the “defining story of our time” more often and more deeply. More than 400 outlets signed on (including Gizmodo and other G/O Media sites), but CBS was the only broadcast network to join.
But by and large, when it comes to climate coverage, corporate broadcasters are seriously screwing up, even though people are more concerned about the climate crisis than ever. And we should be concerned. Just look at the world in 2019! Global carbon emissions hit a new high, and more carbon means more disasters. Scientists say to avert a major catastrophe, the world must rapidly phase out of extracting and using fossil fuels. Broadcast networks have a responsibility to be honest about the urgency and breadth of the crisis, especially since almost half of Americans still rely on TV for news.