Maybe the TV networks should give climate change the urgency it deserves about now…

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Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

How broadcast TV networks covered climate change in 2018

For this study, Media Matters examined 2018 news coverage of climate change on broadcast TV networks, counting and analyzing segments devoted to climate change and segments in which an employee of the network incorporated climate change. We analyzed coverage on the nightly news programs and Sunday morning political shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC. We also analyzed Fox Broadcasting Co.’s syndicated Sunday morning political show, Fox News Sunday. Fox Broadcasting Co. (which is separate from the Fox News cable channel) does not have a nightly news program, so overall there was far less Fox airtime to analyze.

Top trends from a year of broadcast TV news climate coverage

Key findings:

  • There was a 45 percent drop in climate change coverage on the broadcast networks’ nightly news and Sunday morning political shows from 2017 to 2018 — from a total of 260 minutes in 2017 down to just 142 minutes in 2018.
  • Nearly a third of the time that the networks spent covering climate change in 2018, or 46 minutes, came from a single episode of NBC’s Meet the Press on December 30 that was dedicated to discussion of climate change.
  • NBC was the only network that aired more minutes of climate coverage in 2018 than in 2017 — an increase of 23 percent. CBS’ time spent on climate coverage fell 56 percent from 2017 to 2018, Fox News Sunday‘s fell by 75 percent, and ABC’s fell by 81 percent.
  • People of color made up only 9 percent of those who were interviewed, featured, or quoted in the networks’ climate coverage, and women made up only 19 percent.
  • None of the broadcast TV networks’ news reports on hurricanes Florence or Michael mentioned climate change. Only nine of their segments reporting on other weather disasters of 2018 mentioned that climate change exacerbates extreme weather.
  • Almost three-quarters of 2018’s climate coverage occurred in the last three months of the year. Much of it focused on major climate science reports released by the United Nations and the U.S. government.
  • The links between national security and climate change were discussed only once in 2018, in an NBC segment. ABC and CBS did not mention that climate change poses serious threats to national security.
  • Solutions or actions offered in response to climate change were mentioned in only a fifth of climate segments aired on ABC, CBS, or NBC.

Climate change coverage fell significantly from 2017 to 2018

Coverage of climate change on the major broadcast networks declined 45 percent from 2017 to 2018. The programs aired a combined 142 minutes of climate coverage in 2018 — less than two and a half hours. In 2017, the programs spent a combined 260 minutes on climate change. The decline would have been even steeper if not for the December 30 episode of NBC’s Meet the Press, which devoted more than 46 minutes to discussing climate change.

This large drop occurred despite 2018 providing plenty of compelling reasons to cover climate change: extreme weather affecting much of the globe; new scientific research raising alarm bells; landmark climate reports being published by both the United Nations and the U.S. government; and the Trump administration continuing to undermine climate protections.

NBC was the only network to air more minutes of climate coverage in 2018 than in 2017 — an increase of 23 percent. The other broadcast networks each spent less time on climate change in 2018 than they did the year before.

ABC was by far the worst performer. In 2018, the network’s nightly news and Sunday morning political shows discussed climate change for less than 11 minutes total, down from 57 minutes in 2017 — a decline of 81 percent. ABC also aired the fewest number of segments that discussed climate change — just 12 total for the year. This continues a long trend: ABC has aired less climate coverage than CBS and NBC every year since 2013.

CBS’ coverage of climate change fell by 56 percent, from nearly 98 minutes in 2017 to just under 43 minutes in 2018. But CBS did better than the other networks in 2018 on the number of segments in which it addressed climate change — 33 total on its nightly news and Sunday morning political programs.

NBC outpaced its counterparts in time devoted to climate change, spending 78 minutes on the issue in 2018, up from 63.5 minutes in 2017 — an increase of 23 percent. But more than half of its 2018 climate coverage — nearly 46.5 minutes — came from a single episode of Meet the Press on December 30, which marked the first time that a Sunday morning political show dedicated an entire episode to climate change. Without that episode, NBC would have aired less coverage than in 2017 and lagged behind CBS in the time spent on climate change in 2018. Overall, NBC discussed climate change in 30 segments on its nightly news and Sunday morning political programs in 2018.

Fox News Sunday aired a little more than 10 minutes of climate coverage in 2018, down from almost 42 minutes in 2017 — a drop of 75 percent. More than seven minutes of its coverage came from one episode on November 25 in which host Chris Wallace and guests discussed the National Climate Assessment. The show aired a total of five climate segments in 2018.

ABC’s two major news programs — World News Tonight and This Week With George Stephanopoulos, which together air for four and a half hours each week — spent almost as little time on climate change as Fox News Sunday, which airs for just an hour each week.

For more on Sunday morning political shows’ coverage of climate change in 2018, see our recent study.

People of color and women were underrepresented in climate coverage

The four broadcast networks featured 112 people in their news segments on climate change in 2018, excluding the networks’ anchors, hosts, and correspondents. The people featured were invited on as guests, shown speaking in video footage, or quoted. The vast majority of them were white men.

Of the 112 people featured in the networks’ climate segments, 102 were white, or 91 percent. Only 10 were people of color, or 9 percent. In 2017, 10 out of 222 guests in climate segments were people of color, or 5 percent.

ABC featured the fewest people of color in its climate coverage. The network’s nightly news and Sunday morning political programs did not interview any guests of color. The only person of color featured was Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby, an African-American, who was shown in footage speaking at a press conference in the wake of catastrophic wildfires in California on November 23 on World News Tonight.

Ninety-one of the 112 people featured were men, or 81 percent. Only 21 were women, or 19 percent. In 2017, 34 out of 222 guests were women, or 15 percent.

CBS featured the fewest women in its climate coverage. The network didn’t interview any women for its nightly news or Sunday morning climate segments. It only aired brief footage of a speech by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the January 25 episode of CBS Evening News.

Just one woman of color was interviewed about climate change on any of the networks in 2018. New York Times journalist Helene Cooper, who is African-American, participated in a panel discussion that addressed climate change on NBC’s Meet the Press on November 25.

The person featured most often in the networks’ climate coverage was President Donald Trump: 10 climate segments included footage of him (and in nine of them, he was dismissive of climate science; more on that below).

The longest interview with a single guest about climate change, running more than nine minutes, went to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the December 30 episode of NBC’s Meet the Press.

Broadcast news dropped the ball on linking climate change to extreme weather events

2018 was a devastating year for climate change-fueled extreme weather. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, extreme weather and climate disasters caused at least 247 deaths and nearly $100 billion in damage in the United States last year. The disasters included heat waves, wildfires, and hurricanes. It was the second-costliest year for such events in U.S. history, behind only 2017. Extreme weather hit other parts of the world, too: Europe was gripped by deadly summer heat waves, for example, while wildfires raged as far north as the Arctic Circle, India experienced devastating monsoon flooding, and Australia was hit by record drought.

As these extreme weather events were unfolding, many climate scientists explained how climate change can exacerbate events like heat waves, wildfires, and hurricanes. But while the broadcast TV networks’ news programs collectively aired hundreds of segments on extreme weather events that occurred in 2018, only nine of those extreme weather segments mentioned climate change.

None of the networks’ news reports on the hurricanes of 2018 mentioned climate change, even though major hurricanes struck the U.S. and generated extensive coverage. Hurricane Florence, which reached Category 4 status before hitting the Carolinas in September, broke rainfall records. One groundbreaking scientific study connected Florence’s high rainfall to climate change before the storm even reached U.S. shores. Hurricane Michael, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm in the Florida panhandle in October, was unusually intense. Scientists are becoming increasingly confident about the links between climate change and hurricanes, especially climate change’s effects on storm surge, rainfall, and overall storm intensity. But the broadcast networks are still neglecting to incorporate climate change into their hurricane coverage.

Of the extreme weather segments on ABC, CBS, and NBC that did mention climate change, four did so in the context of reporting on wildfires, three in the context of heat waves, one in the context of extreme rainfall, and one in the context of flooding caused by a Nor’easter. Fox News Sunday did not air any segments about extreme weather events that mentioned climate change. Even that low amount of coverage was an increase over the previous year: In 2017, the networks aired a total of only six segments discussing climate change in the context of weather disasters that happened that year.

While the networks rarely mentioned climate change in their segments on specific extreme weather events, they more frequently reported on how climate change affects extreme weather generally, often as part of their coverage of major scientific reports. The nightly news and Sunday morning political programs on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox aired a combined 10 segments that discussed climate change as a driver of extreme weather in the context of reporting on two landmark reports that were released in 2018: the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on global warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the U.S. government’s fourth National Climate Assessment. Both reports made clear that extreme weather events such as heat waves and droughts are worsening as global temperatures increase. One example of such coverage came from CBS correspondent James Brown on the November 23 episode of CBS Evening News, reporting on the release of the National Climate Assessment:

And severe storms are the new norm according to an alarming government report out today on climate change. The 1,600-page report was written by hundreds of scientists at 13 agencies and departments. It says the impacts of climate change are already being seen with more frequent and severe storms, droughts, floods, and wildfires. The report says extreme weather in the U.S. just in the past three years has cost nearly $400 billion.

Almost three-quarters of 2018’s climate coverage occurred in the last three months of the year

The broadcast TV networks’ coverage of climate change was heavily tilted toward the end of the year. More than 73 percent of the time spent covering climate change came in October, November, or December — 104 of 142 minutes.

Most of the coverage in October and November focused on the release of two landmark scientific reports on climate change — the IPCC’s 1.5 C report, which came out on October 7, and the National Climate Assessment, which came out on November 23. Climate coverage peaked in December, due almost entirely to NBC’s Meet the Press climate-focused special episode, which also discussed both major scientific reports.

The relatively high media coverage of the National Climate Assessment was ironic given the circumstances of its release. The Trump administration tried to bury the report by publishing it the Friday after Thanksgiving, but the move backfired and actually drew more attention to its findings.

Every nightly news and Sunday morning political program on ABC, CBS, and NBC covered both reports. Fox News Sunday covered the National Climate Assessment but failed to mention the IPCC report. Altogether, the networks mentioned the National Climate Assessment in 15 segments and the IPCC report in nine. Many of the segments noted that the Trump administration tried to downplay or dispute the reports’ findings.

NBC did the best job of covering climate science

NBC featured 16 climate scientists in its coverage in 2018, and it aired 12 segments about climate science research — more than the other networks on both accounts. NBC also gave the most airtime to a discussion that included a scientist, Kate Marvel of NASA, during the climate-focused special episode of Meet the Press on December 30.

CBS featured 11 scientists in its climate coverage and aired nine segments about climate research. ABC featured just one climate scientist and aired eight segments about climate research. (Fox News Sunday featured no climate scientists and aired two segments about climate research.)

Most of the networks’ segments on scientific research either focused on or mentioned the IPCC report or the National Climate Assessment — 23 out of 31 total. Six segments focused on research about ice loss in the Arctic or Antarctic.

While NBC gave more attention to climate science than the other networks, it also aired the year’s most egregious instance of climate science denial on the broadcast networks. On the November 25 episode of Meet the Press, guest Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute falsely stated that global temperatures have been dropping, and host Chuck Todd did not push back against her statement.

Broadcast news climate coverage focused less on Trump in 2018

In 2017, Trump dominated climate change coverage on the broadcast networks: 71 percent of segments on climate change featured actions or statements by the Trump administration, most frequently the president’s announcement that he intended to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. In 2018, the percentage of climate segments that mentioned Trump fell markedly, to 33 percent.

Unfortunately, when broadcast news climate coverage in 2018 did involve Trump, it more often focused on his climate denial than on his administration’s efforts to roll back climate protections.

Networks’ news programs aired a combined 10 climate segments that included footage of Trump, and in nine of them he expressed denial or skepticism about climate science, often by casting doubt on the IPCC report or the National Climate Assessment. One example came on the November 25 episode of Meet the Press:

CHUCK TODD (HOST): The president is also disputing an urgent warning from his own administration on the issue of climate change. The report from 13 federal agencies was intentionally released on Black Friday in order to bury it in the news. The White House dismissed the findings as, quote, “Largely based on the most extreme scenario.”

The report warns that if significant steps aren’t taken to rein in global warming, climate change could slash the U.S. economy by 10 percent by the end of the century. Just this week, the president tweeted about East Coast cold weather, “Whatever happened to global warming?”

[BEGIN VIDEO CLIP]

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don’t know that it’s manmade. You have to show me the scientists, because they have a very big political agenda.

[END VIDEO CLIP]

Only two of the segments that featured Trump’s climate skepticism rebutted his comments by noting the scientific consensus around climate change.

The networks aired only six segments that mentioned the Trump administration’s attempts to undo climate regulations — four on CBS, one each on ABC and NBC, and none on Fox News Sunday. Three of the segments mentioned efforts to loosen standards for vehicle carbon emissions, and two mentioned the ongoing rollback of the Clean Power Plan, which would have reined in pollution from coal-fired power plants.

CBS was the only network to mention Environmental Protection Agency administrators in the context of climate change. Climate regulations came up during an interview that CBS correspondent Major Garrett conducted with then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on the January 17 episode of CBS Evening News, and on the July 5 episode, Garrett reported on Pruitt’s resignation and noted that his successor, Andrew Wheeler, had previously worked for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), a “well-known climate change skeptic.”

Broadcast networks gave too little attention to how climate change affects national security and public health

Climate change affects society, human health, and the natural world in many different ways — some of which got more coverage than others from the broadcast TV networks.

National security threats posed by climate change — which have been well-documented — got very little attention in 2018: just one mention on NBC. During a roundtable discussion on the December 30 episode of Meet the Press, former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy said, “I think there is a very strong consensus, in the U.S. military and in the national security community, that climate change is real. This is a sort of pragmatic, clear-eyed view. And for the military, they see this as leading to a change in their mission, more humanitarian assistance, disaster-relief missions abroad and at home.” Neither ABC nor CBS aired any segments that mentioned the national security issues related to climate change.

The threats climate change poses to public health also got little attention, despite being highlighted in the National Climate Assessment.

All three networks did give some coverage to the economic effects, often while discussing the National Climate Assessment, which warned that climate change could take a serious toll on the U.S. economy. Economic impacts were covered in a few other segments too, like one on NBC Nightly News on November 10 about warming sea temperatures pushing Maine’s lobsters north toward Canada.

All three networks also mentioned how climate change causes abnormal weather trends like rising global average temperatures, often in the context of reporting on the IPCC report or National Climate Assessment. And all three gave at least some coverage to the impact of climate change on plants and wildlife, such as an October 10 segment on NBC Nightly News linking the warming of the oceans to worsening algae blooms in Florida that kill vast quantities of marine life. ABC alone failed to mention sea-level rise.

Solutions to climate change were mentioned in only a fifth of climate coverage

When the broadcast TV networks’ news programs did cover climate change, they rarely mentioned potential solutions to climate-related problems or actions to fight or prepare for climate change. Out of 75 total climate segments aired on ABC, CBS, and NBC in 2018, just 15 of them — 20 percent — made any mention of solutions or responses to climate change.

NBC aired eight segments that addressed solutions or action, more than the other two major networks combined. Four of these segments came on Meet the Press’ climate change episode on December 30, including an eight-minute roundtable discussion dedicated to solutions and responses to climate change such as carbon taxes and lawsuits against fossil fuel companies.

CBS aired four segments that included mention of climate solutions, while ABC aired three. (Fox News Sunday did not mention climate solutions or responses in any of its five segments on climate change.)

Still, most of these segments merely mentioned solutions or responses in passing rather than exploring them in any depth.

Research suggests that media coverage of climate solutions can lead to more engagement from the public, as Media Matters noted in a recent study of solutions coverage in 2017 and 2018.

PBS aired far more climate change segments than the corporate broadcast networks

In addition to analyzing climate change coverage on the corporate broadcast networks, we examined coverage on public broadcaster PBS’ weekday nightly news show, PBS NewsHour.

PBS NewsHour has traditionally outpaced its broadcast counterparts in climate reporting and in the scope and depth of its coverage. Those trends continued in 2018. PBS NewsHour aired 72 segments that addressed climate change in 2018, up from 69 segments in 2017.

PBS NewsHour did a better job than the corporate networks of covering how climate change drives extreme weather. It aired six segments last year that discussed the links between climate change and the major hurricanes that hit the U.S., Florence and Michael. The show also aired seven segments on the links between climate change and wildfires, and three on climate change affecting extreme weather in other countries, including drought in Afghanistan and Somalia.

PBS NewsHour aired 23 segments that mentioned climate solutions — more than all of the corporate networks combined. And the show’s solutions coverage was typically more in-depth than that of its broadcast counterparts, including segments focusing on local moves to fight climate change and on efforts to adapt to climate change. PBS NewsHour also aired nine segments on the Trump administration’s rollbacks of climate protections, again more than the corporate networks combined.

Evlondo Cooper contributed research to this study. Charts by Melissa Joskow.

Methodology

This report analyzes coverage of climate change from January 1, 2018, to December 31, 2018, on four nightly news programs (ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour) and four Sunday morning political shows (ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos, CBS’ Face the Nation, NBC’s Meet the Press, and Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday) based on transcripts from the Nexis database.

To identify news segments that discussed climate change, we searched for derivations of the following terms in Nexis: climate change, global warming, changing climate, climate warms, climate warming, warming climate, warmer climate, warming planet, warmer planet, warming globe, warmer globe, global temperatures, rising temperatures, hotter temperatures, climate science, climate scientist, paris climate, climate accord, paris accord, climate agreement, paris agreement, and climate deal. In some instances, Nexis categorized a segment that did not mention one of our search terms as being about climate change, and if the segment provided other clear indications that it was indeed about climate change, it was included.

Our analysis included any segment devoted to climate change, as well as any substantial mention of climate change (more than one paragraph of a news transcript or a definitive statement by a person employed by the network). The study does not include instances in which a guest brought up climate change without being prompted to do so by a network employee unless the network employee subsequently addressed climate change. We defined network employees as hosts, anchors, and correspondents. When counting guests, we included network employees if they appeared as part of a roundtable discussion on a Sunday morning political show, but we excluded Sunday show hosts. We did not include teasers if they were for segments that aired later on the same program. We acquired time stamps from iQ Media. If a significant portion of a segment was not related to climate change, such as a report on a politician giving a speech about climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the economy, only the portions of the segment that discussed climate change were counted. For the Sunday morning political shows, which often feature wide-ranging discussions on multiple topics, we counted only the relevant portion of such conversations. In the text of this report, most time counts have been rounded to the nearest minute.

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