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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Network TV Cuts Climate Change Coverage

Air Date: Week of

While protests and the Paris climate talks in November 2015 drew international attention to climate change, 2015 saw a decline in US network television coverage of climate change compared to 2014. (Photo: Takver, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

From the Paris Climate Agreement to the Pope’s environmental encyclical, 2015 should have been a banner year for climate change in the media. But a recent report from Media Matters for America documents a recent decline in commercial network TV global warming coverage. Andrew Seifter from Media Matters discusses the trend with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: 2015 was a big year for climate news, but you wouldn’t know it from commercial television network news. Despite such major stories as the President’s Clean Power Plan, the Paris Climate Agreement, and the Pope’s encyclical on climate change, on average NBC, CBS, and ABC all cut coverage of global warming. Media Matters for America has been monitoring climate coverage for the last few years, and Andrew Seifter is its Climate and Energy Program Director and a co-author of this year’s study. Thanks for joining us, Andrew.

SEIFTER: Thanks for having me on, Steve.

CURWOOD: So talk to me a bit about this study. Now you been looking at climate change in the media since, what, 2009? What did you find this year?

SEIFTER: Well, we found that the total amount of coverage on the nightly newscast and the Sunday shows combined was down five percent from last year which was certainly a surprising finding given that, I think, by any measure we could say that 2015 was most newsworthy year for climate change in history.

In 2015 Pope Francis published an Encyclical on climate change and our relationship to the natural world. (Photo: Martin Schulz, Flickr CC BY-ND-NC 2.0)

CURWOOD: So which network dropped it the most?

SEIFTER: ABC really stood out in that regard. They had a 59 percent drop in their coverage. They dedicated 13 total minutes all year long to climate change coverage. And just to put that in perspective, you know, their Sunday show this week had Bernie Sanders on several times and he actually brought up climate change on his own four different times; whereas the host and reporters of this week only brought up climate change twice all year, so Bernie Sanders, even when he wasn't even asked about climate change brought it up twice as often as the journalists themselves.

CURWOOD: So this seems very strange in a year that, what? You have the Pope with a major statement, an encyclical on climate change, the Paris climate talks, and there's finally an agreement there. There's been this investigation of Exxon. What's going on?

Total coverage of climate change in 2014 and 2015, based on minutes of airtime on major news networks ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX. (Photo: Media Matters for America)

SEIFTER: Well, you know that's the conversation...that is a very important question and that's the conversation we were hoping to provoke with our study where we lay out the facts and then we can sort of try to interpret that data. I think one explanation without question for the year-to-year difference is the presidential campaign. In the modern age, the presidential election starts the day after the midterm elections end, and particularly I think with the candidacy of Donald Trump, the media have devoted so many resources to covering him, that's really taken a lot of the oxygen out of the room, but I think there's also the broader issue that climate change coverage in general is never that high. Sam Stein from the Huffington Post was on Bill Maher the other night, and he talked about how climate change is a gradual menace. For example, in Florida, where sea level rise is a real threat and is already occurring, it just doesn't have the same shock value as a terrorist attack or a mass shooting, you know, these types of events we see that draw these massive waves of media coverage and with climate change, it really requires journalists to dig a little deeper and to explain the nature of the threat to their viewers more than some of these events that speak for themselves.

CURWOOD: Now, you said ABC had the deepest decline in coverage. What about the other networks? Do they come close to that?

Climate denial segments featured on Sunday shows rose from 2014 to 2015. (Photo: Media Matters for America)

SEIFTER: You know, I think CBS and NBC kind of stayed generally where they were before. FOX actually, they were the one network that significantly increased their coverage. Their coverage actually doubled, but that wasn't a good thing for people who are concerned about climate change because the vast majority of that coverage included attacks on climate policies or climate science denial, so people who watch Fox for their climate coverage got more of it but they didn't necessarily learn more from watching it.

CURWOOD: What about the other networks, and who increased coverage?

SEIFTER: PBS has sort of stood out for a couple years in terms of just the quality of their coverage. You know, they did more segments on climate change than all of the other nightly news shows combined. So, PBS really stood out. I would say also that NBC and CBS did do a better job this year of connecting the dots between extreme weather events and climate change. That was one particular area where those two networks did an excellent job, but the broader problem we see is that the polling constantly shows that the vast majority of the public believes climate change is real and that humans are causing it, and they support actions to address climate change, but what we find over and over again is that it's just not a top-of-mind issue for people. They don't prioritize climate change compared to other issues and I think a big reason for that is because the media is not talking about the impacts of climate change on a day-to-day basis, and we found in our study that the national security impacts of climate change were largely ignored by the networks; the economic impacts were largely ignored and the public health impacts as well, even though the Obama administration specifically made it a point to emphasize public health when they rolled out the clean power plan, which is the biggest action the US has ever taken to fight climate change. So despite a lot of newsworthy events and reports about those impacts, it didn't make it onto the network newscasts.

Although climate change gets little attention on major commercial TV networks in the United States, it’s become an urgent matter in countries like the Marshall Islands, where sea level rise threatens the existence of towns and communities. (Photo: Stefan Lins, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: How important is commercial television? We have blogs, podcasts, the internet, Facebook. All these things have changed the media landscape. How important is that the commercial broadcast television networks aren't covering climate to the extent that I think your organization thinks that it ought to?

SEIFTER: Really the Sunday shows have a particular influence on the conversation that occurs in Washington and throughout the country. You know, they really set the policy agenda for the week, and I think that those conversations, they make news, you know, so I think the things that are talked about on the Sunday shows have an added impact. It's not just the coverage they get that day when people are watching, those quotes get covered in subsequent news reports both on television and in print media. So we felt that really they deserve particular attention.

Comparison of network climate coverage: ABC’s World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, NBC’s Nightly News, and the PBS Newshour. (Photo: Media Matters for America)

CURWOOD: What is the cost to American society that the network television shows and Sunday morning talk shows have cut back on the coverage of climate disruption?

SEIFTER: I think it's a big explanation for why we have been so slow to act on climate change, you know. I think if there had been ample climate change coverage in the run-up to, say, the debate in Congress over the cap and trade legislation in 2009 and 2010, I think there would've been a lot stronger public support for getting something done on the issue and it would've been a lot harder to vilify the legislation and make the supporters of it seem like they were trying to harm taxpayers. You know, I think people need to know, the public needs to know that climate change is already impacting their lives in significant ways and that it will continue to impact their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren, and I think it's really the obligation of the media to tell that story and inform the public about these threats.

CURWOOD: Now, here at Living on Earth, of course, we cover climate change a fair amount. In fact, sometimes we have a sense of climate change fatigue. What do you recommend to news organizations that are focusing on this, well, let's face it, very depressing topic?

Climate coverage since 2009 (Photo: Media Matters for America)

SEIFTER: That's true, and I do think there are...research has shown that if you are too dour about the issue, you'll turn a lot of people off and people don't want to hear about a hopeless situation. Fortunately, we are not yet at the point where it is a hopeless situation. 2015 was the biggest year for climate action in world history. It was a rare moment of international unity when you had 195 countries around the world all saying that this is a crisis that we're facing as a planet and that we are all have to come together to deal with this, you know. So I think you see folks on FOX News and other outlets trying to suggest that the US can't do anything because countries like China and India won't, but the simple fact is that China and India are stepping to the plate. The US is stepping to the plate. European countries are stepping to the plate, so I think telling that story is critically important. I also think that telling human stories of climate impacts is important to make it more than just about numbers and figures, but actually telling the stories of individual people, whether it be the victims of Hurricane Sandy or farmers or other people who are being directly impacted by wildfires and other issues. Telling their story, I think, is important for getting it across to people that there's a real human impact to what's happening.

CURWOOD: Andrew Seifter is Climate and Energy Program Director at Media Matters for America and co-author of the study "How broadcast networks covered climate change in 2015". Andrew, thanks so much for taking time with us today.

SEIFTER: It was my pleasure, Steve. Great conversation.



Check out the study on broadcast coverage of climate change

Media Matters for America


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