After the Drought: Will Climate Reporting Take Off?

After the release of a report on links between extreme weather and climate change, Americans may get what polls show 80 percent of us want: more environmental reporting in mainstream news.
News Screen Shot

By the third week of July, the USDA had declared nearly 1,300 counties in 29 states disaster areas due to drought and excessive heat.

Environmentalists have been dismayed for years to see mainstream media in the United States, especially television news, failing to convey the reality of climate change and the urgency of an official response. But there may have been a breakthrough in broadcast television news halfway through this summer’s record-breaking extreme weather events.

A study by watchdog group Media Matters shows that in 2011, major broadcast networks spent more than twice as much time talking about Donald Trump as they did about climate change. The study states that in 2011, when they did discuss climate change, the major Sunday news shows (ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, NBC’s Meet the Press, and Fox News Sunday) consulted political and media figures—but not scientists. Of those interviewed, 50 percent were political figures—including elected officials, strategists and advisers—and 45 percent were from the media.

This lack of fact-based coverage has not been due to public disinterest. A recent poll by the Opinion Research Corporation reveals that nearly 80 percent of Americans want to see more environmental news in mainstream media. The poll—commissioned by the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage—indicates that, regardless of age, race, income, or region, Americans believe the media should improve coverage of the environment.

Corn Drought photo by Darin Leach

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack inspects damaged soybean and corn crops in eastern Iowa.

Photo by Darin Leach.

The trend of underreporting environmental news—specifically, climate change—looked set to continue over the summer of 2012, even during extreme weather events like the destructive wildfires in Colorado. A possible connection between climate change and wildfires, which affected areas in 14 states, went virtually without mention, according to Media Matters. Their analysis of news coverage from April 1 to June 30, 2012 revealed that only 3 percent of news reports on wildfires in the West mentioned climate change.

Then, on July 10, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its first report linking the likelihood of extreme weather events to human-made climate change (see this article). That evening ABC, CBS, and NBC nightly newscasts all reported on NOAA’s new position, and featured stories linking climate change to recent extreme weather events.
In a report that showed footage of hurricanes, tornadoes, and melting ice fields, ABC News reported on “the hottest 12 months we’ve ever lived through” and called the NOAA report “a major alert … about the speed of climate change.”

Even if the change in reporting sticks, many viewers may feel it is woefully late. The change of tone for the three major broadcast networks was summed up in a remark by ABC’s weather editor to news anchor Diane Sawyer: “If you want my opinion, Diane, now’s the time we start limiting man-made greenhouse gases.”

  • We can still avoid a devastating climate crisis, but we’ll need a World War II-level mobilization — and we’ll need to stand up to Dirty Energy.

  • Bill McKibben: In the mighty struggles beginning between climate activists and the fossil fuel industry, geography is on our side.