By Karen Savage
Climate change-driven heat waves have shattered records across the United States over the past several weeks. Globally, June 2020 was tied with 2019 for the warmest June ever recorded.
The extreme heat is doing more than just making us sweat. It has hampered efforts to contain the COVID-19 crisis and endangered our health. Both the extreme heat and the pandemic are disproportionately affecting communities of color.
But if you’re one of the millions of Americans who get their news from three major networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—you’d never know it, according to research published last week by Media Matters, a non-profit media watchdog group.
Its researchers analyzed 40 separate broadcast segments aired by ABC, CBS and NBC between July 12 and July 19 and found that none of them connected the extreme heat to climate change. Fox News was not included in this research, however the network’s attacks on climate science and climate advocates, as well as its outright climate denial, is well-documented.
Of the networks analyzed, only three aired segments connecting the heat to the COVID-19 crisis and none mentioned the disproportionate impact all three are having on communities of color.
“Sometimes they talked about it in the kind of terms that you think would suggest climate change, saying extreme heat, saying record temperatures, saying all of these things that are signals that this is a climate moment—and then not going to extra step to say, ‘and this is what is expected in a warming climate,’” said study co-author Allison Fisher, director of Media Matters’ climate and energy program.
“Those few words take two seconds to add on, so it’s not a question of they don’t have the time. It seems almost intentional and to have no one draw the connection was a little bit baffling and quite disappointing,” Fisher said.
The lack of major media coverage of the climate crisis has long played a role in the public’s clouded understanding of the issue. Investigative reporting by InsideClimate News and others has uncovered a decades-long effort by the fossil fuel industry to cast doubt on climate science. Many of the nearly dozen climate change-related lawsuits filed against fossil fuel companies by municipalities across the country include claims related to those disinformation campaigns. Still, the reluctance of television networks to report on climate change—and the current litigation—persists and has a direct impact on communities trying to hold the industry accountable for that deception and for its role in climate change itself: the public can’t support what it doesn’t understand.
Murky Reporting Persists
Perhaps the most notable example of media omitting a connection to climate change came in June when temperatures in Verkhoyansk, a tiny town in Siberia that has experienced unusually high temperatures all year, reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
NBC, the only network to cover the record-breaking heat, presented it as a novelty and took pains to clarify it was not a climate event, according to the research, which is posted on Media Matters’ website.
“This is a weather event. This isn’t a climate event. But climate change makes weather extremes like this more likely, and it makes them worse,” meteorologist Bill Karins said.
Less than a week later, a group of international researchers found the extreme heat could be expected to happen only once every 80,000 years and would have “effectively been impossible without human-induced climate change.”
“Do you think that they went back and reported that?,” Fisher said. “No. They didn’t do that follow-up, they didn’t say, ‘hey, when we talked about this, we have more information, we have an update on that conversation’—they didn’t do it.”
In all but four of the 40 segments aired, Media Matters found the stories were reported by meteorologists, who framed the extreme heat as a weather event without mentioning its connection to climate change.
“There’s still this persistent idea that climate change is political and controversial, of course we know that has been done intentionally—so there’s this fear that making the link will alienate a portion of their audience,” Fisher said.
The fossil fuel industry has long-nurtured that controversy.
The American Petroleum Institute (API), the industry’s most powerful trade associate, in 1998 proposed a specific plan to influence the public perception of climate science. Developed by the group’s Global Climate Science Communications Team, which included representatives from Exxon and Chevron, it called for the creation of a national media relations program to “inform the media about uncertainties in climate science” and to “generate national regional and local media coverage on the scientific uncertainties.”
The effects of that work and other similar efforts can still be seen today.
“The idea that you’re putting yourself out there to make that connection that is founded in science and that you’re able to do that credibly, that you’re still afraid to do that, that is the work of decades of climate denial and climate denial campaigns,” Fisher said. “When we issue a report that says not one TV news program made the connection between this event and climate, that’s those dividends of that work paying off.”
The fossil fuel influence goes beyond ABC, CBS and NBC. Energy-related newsletters by Politico and the Washington Post are frequently sponsored by oil companies or associated trade groups. This week alone, both have been sponsored by the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade association whose views on climate change are so extreme, Chevron and Total have ended their membership in recent years.
Climate Matters, an organization dedicated to working with meteorologists and journalists to report on the local impact of human-caused climate change, is working to counter that influence. Its focus is helping local broadcast journalists tell local science-based stories about global climate change, its impact on their communities and potential solutions.
The program began as a pilot in 2010 with just one local meteorologist and has since grown to include over 900 of the approximately 2,200 meteorologists across the country.
Bernadette Woods Placky, chief meteorologist and director of Climate Matters, said Media Matter’s research is important because it highlights the continuing need to bring climate change into all news coverage. Fortunately, major networks are only one part of the media landscape, she added.
“Local TV news is still king for how people consume their information, also digitally,” Placky said.
“We want to bring climate change into all stories where it applies, we need to make that connection for an informed public and the local TV meteorologists are doing this in places that people wouldn’t expect this conversation to be had,” Placky said.
“It’s become such a political conversation, but for the most part, the local TV meteorologists are treating it as a science, and they’re connecting it to the science of what they see, because the reality is, when you explain the why, something is happening and how to prepare your community, climate change is part of the why, and it’s part of the preparation for the future.”
Pushing network news to make the scientific connection to climate change is a step in the right direction, but the goal is to give viewers a full understanding of what that connection means, according to both Placky and Fisher.
It’s a shift similar to the demand for better reporting on police misconduct.
“Right now, this is a moment of reckoning for the media for the way that they have continuously obfuscated and had shallow and one side of reporting around police brutality and these shootings, and we see what that has created,” Fisher said, adding that police are too often deemed the authoritative voice, with their narrative going unchallenged by the media unless a video surfaces that shows otherwise.
“The same thing happens with climate change, except it is the narrative of the fossil fuel companies that goes unchallenged,” Fisher said. “[The networks] cannot continue to not give context, historical or otherwise to these very complex stories.”
“And if they do say, ‘this is connected to climate’, then the next question has to be, what are we doing about it? Why is there no federal response to the climate crisis? And who is responsible for that? And who’s being most hurt by these events and why? Why is it always these same communities? And why are they not recovering?”