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We're Talking About Climate Change Way More, But That's Not Necessarily a Good Thing

The media is failing us.

14 FEB 2018

A new report from Media Matters has revealed a surge in last year's media coverage of climate change. And, strangely enough, the Trump administration's denial of climate science might actually be driving the national conversation.


Sometimes it seems like the mainstream news talks about climate change about as much as science itself - which is to say, not a lot. From 2007 to 2010, environmental news accounted for only 1.5 percent of all news stories, with the same pathetic percentage dedicated to science and tech news.

But just over a month into 2017, Media Matters found that CBS Evening News had aired more than half the amount of climate coverage it did in all of 2016. Plus, within months of 2017 starting, NBC Nightly News managed to nearly double its climate change coverage from the entire year before.

Anyone who pays attention to politics knows that President Trump dominated the news cycle in 2017, and when it comes to environmental news that still rings true. The Media Matters analysis, which was published this week, found 79 percent of all climate change coverage on the major TV networks last year focused on statements or actions by the Trump administration.

2017 climate chart 1 1 0

In these segments, extra attention was given to the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Paris agreement (featured in 52 percent of all climate segments) and to President Trump's denial that human-caused climate change is a scientific reality. 

In fact, virtually all coverage of climate change on Sunday shows revolved around the Trump administration, with 94 minutes out of a total of 95 minutes dedicated to the topic.

But more coverage doesn't necessarily mean better coverage. Attacks on the Clean Power Plan, auto fuel-economy standards, and other important climate policies did not receive the adequate coverage they deserved. The report states that these networks "undercovered or ignored the ways that climate change had real-life impacts on people, the economy, national security, and the year's extreme weather events."

"Even though corporate broadcast news coverage of climate change increased between 2016 and 2017, the quality of coverage remained poor across the board, primarily because the networks centered their climate coverage around Donald Trump while largely neglecting other important climate stories," said Lisa Hymas, director of climate and energy programs at Media Matters for America.2017 climate chart 2

Clearly, the media's coverage of climate change is far too narrowly focused. Despite the fact that 2017 was a record year for climate disasters, the broadcast networks rarely covered the link between extreme weather disasters and climate change. In fact, the networks aired only four segments in total that discussed climate change in context of disasters like hurricanes Harvey, Irma or Maria.

The findings are supported by a previous analysis of 2017 hurricane footage that found about 60 percent of hurricane news included the word Trump, while only about 5 percent could summon the scientific integrity to mention climate change.

These studies just go to show that the media is failing us when it comes to the most pressing issue of our time and its dangerous effects - especially in a year when weather disasters killed hundreds of Americans, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and cost the economy in excess of $300 billion.

2017 climate chart 4 1

Besides, even when the media bothers with climate change, instead of dispelling climate myths, journalists often help perpetuate them.

While 19 percent of the networks' climate-related segments mentioned President Trump's denial of climate change as a "hoax", a whopping 37 percent failed to rebut the scientifically inaccurate statement by affirming the reality of climate change or by acknowledging the scientific consensus around the issue.

For instance, the report highlighted this particular unchallenged exchange between EPA adminstrator Scott Pruitt and Meet the Press host Chuck Todd:

Screen Shot 2018 02 14 at 12.58.47 pmPhoto Credit: Media Matters

Even though 2017 was a big year for breakthroughs in climate science, climate scientists were all but non-existent in the national news coverage. While PBS and CBS led the networks in coverage of climate-related scientific research, both networks also hosted guests who explicitly denied the climate change consensus.

Plus, for the second year in a row, Sunday shows did not feature a single scientist in climate-related coverage.

2017 climate chart 8

Providing "all sides" of the climate change "debate" is not good journalism. When 97 percent of scientists accept the science behind human-caused climate change, the news ought to reflect this consensus.

Luckily, the problem is easy to fix. Journalists need to stop promoting the misguided opinions of climate deniers and start elevating the expertise of climate scientists. And, if journalists insist on covering climate change news only in reference to the Trump administration, they must fact-check and challenge fallacious claims, instead of giving wilfully ignorant opinions a free pass.


Why? Because the way we cover climate change directly impacts the way Americans think about the issue. A 2016 study found that "opinion on climate change is directly influenced by media coverage," and that "the most important driver of media remains elite cues from politicians and movement actors."

In the future, Hymas said she would like to see more scientific experts also driving news coverage of climate change.

"As the climate crisis intensifies, the broadcast networks must report on the real-world effects of climate change and climate policies rather than treating the issue as Trump's political football," Hymas said.

The Media Matters report analyzed 2017 coverage of climate change on four Sunday news shows (ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, and Fox News Sunday) and four nightly news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour).

The full analysis was published online at Media Matters for America.