In a summer dominated by record-breaking extreme weather events — from searing heat waves to torrential rains to raging wildfires — corporate broadcast and major cable news coverage displayed a few troubling trends, including failing to point out links to climate change, overlooking the socioeconomic impacts of storms and other extreme weather, and, among right-wing media, increasingly propagating climate denial. National TV news outlets must counter these trends by consistently linking extreme weather to global warming, highlighting how climate change harms marginalized communities, and holding polluters accountable.
National TV news, as opposed to major print outlets, consistently ignored clear climate signals connecting this summer’s extreme weather events to climate change
According to The Guardian, “The summer of 2023 was the hottest ever recorded, as the climate crisis and emerging El Niño pushed up temperatures and drove extreme weather across the world.” The article continued:
In June, July and August – the northern hemisphere summer – the global average temperature reached 16.77C, which was 0.66C above the 1991 to 2020 average. The new high is 0.29C above the previous record set in 2019, a big jump in climate terms.
The data, from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), showed that August was about 1.5C warmer than the preindustrial average for 1850 to 1900, although the goal of the world’s nations to keep global heating below 1.5C will be considered broken only when this temperature is sustained over months and years.
Heatwaves, fires and floods have destroyed lives and livelihoods across the globe, from North and South America, to Europe, India, Japan and China.
Despite the clear imprint of global warming on this summer’s extreme weather events, national TV news outlets largely chose to omit climate change from their coverage.
Only 2% of 780 segments about Hurricane Idalia linked the storm to global warming, while only 4% of segments on Hurricane Hilary mentioned climate and 4% of those about the Lahaina, Hawaii, wildfire discussed climate change. Just 10% of segments about catastrophic flooding across the Northeast connected it to climate change, and only 5% of segments about the record-shattering heat wave that scorched Texas mentioned climate.
Global warming is clearly intensifying the magnitude and frequency of some extreme weather events, setting the stage for unprecedented disasters. However, national TV news has largely sidestepped the pressing need to consistently connect these events to the overarching climate crisis. As such, they have deprived viewers of crucial information, including the broader implications of global warming and the urgent need for actionable solutions.
In contrast, major print outlets such as The Associated Press, The New York Times, and The Washington Post all published stories that connected the record-breaking extreme weather events across the globe to the accelerating effects of global warming. These stories conveyed an urgent call to recognize and address the escalating impacts of climate change and to take immediate action, setting a commendable standard in climate reporting.
Although some national TV news shows aired several excellent segments that clearly linked the summer’s extreme weather to climate change, with some even holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for its role in driving our climate emergency, they were the exception, not the rule.
National TV news coverage continued to overlook the socioeconomic disparities amplified by climate-driven extreme weather events
Before and after extreme weather events, many communities find their choices driven by economic factors. Those with tighter finances often face challenges in evacuating or relocating, while those with greater resources have an easier time moving to safety. And as recovery begins, the less affluent encounter more obstacles in rebuilding, particularly in areas where infrastructure is lacking, further highlighting existing disparities. These inequities are often compounded by discriminatory practices in disbursing federal aid.
National TV news outlets too often fail to cover the complex struggles marginalized communities face during extreme weather events, despite much room for deeper exploration in their reporting. By focusing on these specific challenges, media could increase awareness and help viewers see the links between climate events and socioeconomic issues, therefore highlighting systemic problems and encouraging proactive responses that consider those often harmed first and worst.
Fox News, among other right-wing outlets, amplified climate denial amid record-breaking extreme weather events
Amid a backdrop of escalating extreme weather events linked to climate change, right-leaning media outlets, especially Fox News, have continually propagated a counternarrative steeped in climate denial on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. Fox News’ track record is particularly alarming; for instance, the network recently hosted Judith Curry, a known climate contrarian, without revealing her fossil fuel affiliations or her consistent opposition to climate action.
Despite the desperate flailing from right-wing media, people are increasingly trusting their own experiences with extreme weather. According to The Associated Press, a new poll found that a majority of Americans believe they have personally felt the impact of climate change, particularly after a summer marked by intense heat and extreme weather events. Around 87% report having experienced an extreme weather event in the past five years, up from 79% in April. Of those, three-quarters say they believe that climate change is at least partly to blame.
TV news must link extreme weather events to climate science, spotlight frontline struggles, and hold polluters accountable
The increasing frequency of extreme weather events underscores the urgent need for media, especially national TV news, to evolve its reporting approach. First, it's crucial that the coverage is rooted in clear climate science and that it highlights actionable solutions. This isn't just about connecting the dots; it's about drawing a clear map for viewers to follow the cause and effect of these climatic shifts.
Second, it's imperative to amplify the struggles faced by those on the front lines of the climate crisis. Their stories aren't just tales of adversity; they feature resilience, adaptation, and calls for systemic change. Highlighting their experiences can also help humanize the people facing devastating disasters such as extreme heat, damaging flooding, and destructive wildfires.
Furthermore, accountability is nonnegotiable. National TV news must no longer shy away from pointing out the primary culprits driving global warming – the fossil fuel industry and other major polluters. Their role in escalating the climate crisis warrants persistent scrutiny from broadcast and cable news shows.
Last, national TV news stories about climate change must connect more profoundly with the daily lives of its viewers. The recent Associated Press poll revealed a telling trend: People are increasingly feeling the direct impacts of climate change. This isn't a distant issue but a lived experience for far too many. For TV news stories to truly resonate, they must mirror and amplify this reality, making the global climate narrative a personal, local story. Making them so is also one of the most effective ways to combat climate misinformation.