Only 4% of national TV news segments about Hurricane Hilary mentioned climate change

Media Matters / Molly Butler

Research/Study Research/Study

Only 4% of national TV news segments about Hurricane Hilary mentioned climate change

Despite extensive coverage of Hurricane Hilary, major TV networks largely bypassed its link to global warming

During coverage of Hurricane Hilary's unprecedented landfall in California — where it struck as a tropical storm after swiftly intensifying to a Category 4 hurricane due to abnormally warm waters, broke rainfall records in Southern California and four other states, and marked the first tropical storm to hit Southern California in 84 years — major TV news networks largely ignored the clear signals of climate change driving Hilary’s unique path and rapid intensification. 

From August 18-21, a Media Matters analysis found:

  • National TV news broadcasters — ABC, CBS, and NBC — and major cable news networks — CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News — covered Hurricane Hilary for 18 hours and 38 minutes across 430 segments.
  • Only 4% of the 430 segments and weathercasts about Hurricane Hilary across national TV news mentioned the role climate change played in the storm.
  • Major cable news networks – CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC – aired 16 hours and 59 minutes of coverage across 369 segments or weathercasts about Hurricane Hilary. Only 17 cable news segments mentioned the connection between the storm and climate change; MSNBC mentioned it 9 times, and CNN mentioned it 8.
  • Corporate broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC – aired a combined 1 hour and 39 minutes across 61 segments or weathercasts that discussed Hurricane Hilary. ABC aired the only broadcast news climate mentions during coverage of the storm, with 2 segments mentioning climate change.
  • Hurricane Hilary, influenced by global warming, brought rare and dangerous conditions to Southern California

  • As Hurricane Hilary targeted Southern California, it served as a stark reminder of the altered climate dynamics in the region. The storm’s northward trajectory was unusual for Eastern Pacific cyclones, which typically veer westward, and Hilary's rapid intensification mirrored a dangerous trend tied to warming oceans. Although data on Eastern Pacific hurricanes remains limited, emerging trends signal climate change's increasing influence on storm intensity and frequency, raising the stakes for populated regions in their path.

    Although Hurricane Hilary quickly weakened just before making landfall in northern Mexico, it became the first tropical storm to hit Southern California in 84 years and wreaked havoc across the state. Although no lives were lost, widespread flooding and mudslides led to extensive infrastructure damage, affecting roads, bridges, homes, and businesses. The storm also brought record-breaking rainfall to cities across the region, notably in Los Angeles and San Diego, with some areas receiving an entire year's worth of rain in just one day. Death Valley shattered its previous rainfall record, and new records were also set in Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.

  • National TV news coverage of Hilary was robust, but mostly missed the larger climate story

  • Broadcast and cable news’ more than 18 hours of coverage provided viewers with detailed information about Hurricane Hilary's formation, trajectory, and unprecedented impact on California. Interviews with numerous public officials from the impacted areas underscored exhaustive preparations before the storm and intensive recovery efforts afterward. However, the scant few climate mentions in broadcast and cable news coverage of Hurricane Hilary were often brief and lacked consistency, representing a missed opportunity to inform viewers of the storm’s broader implications for global warming — but a handful of segments stood out for their depth, directly attributing Hilary's unusual characteristics to climate change.

    During the August 20 episode of MSNBC's PoliticsNation, host Al Sharpton delivered a compelling monologue on the imperative for climate justice in relation to extreme weather events like Hilary. Sharpton highlighted the disproportionate impact global warming (and environmental racism) have on marginalized communities, underscoring the need for an equitable approach to the climate crisis.

  • Video file

    Citation From the August 20, 2023, episode of MSNBC's PoliticsNation

  • Discussing Hilary’s landfall in California on the August 21 episode of MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports, climate scientist Michael Mann unequivocally stated, “This is climate change.” Drawing connections to the wildfires in Canada and Maui, Mann noted that we're witnessing “greater extremes at both ends of the spectrum.” This includes the effects of a warmer ocean, which intensifies rainfall and flooding, as evidenced by Hilary's impact on California.

  • Video file

    Citation From the August 21, 2023 episode of MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports

  • During the August 21 episode of CNN News Central, anchor Jim Sciutto engaged climate scientist Daniel Swain in a discussion about the connection between singular weather events and broader climate change trends. Swain emphasized the distinction between climate and weather, but noted their intertwined nature and contextualized the reasons for the extreme precipitation Tropical Storm Hilary brought to Southern California.

  • Video file

    Citation From the August 21, 2023, episode of CNN News Central

  • National TV networks cannot shy away from connecting extreme weather events to global warming

  • While the comprehensive and detailed coverage of the storm by national TV news networks is commendable, they often appear to be waiting for direct attribution before firmly connecting extreme weather events like Hilary to global warming. However, even without immediate attribution for a specific event, the overall trend in extreme weather is unmistakably being driven by climate change.

    Climate research consistently indicates that although not every extreme weather event can be directly tied to human-caused global warming, the rising frequency, intensity, and unpredictability of such events align with predictions for a warming world. Global warming, in this sense, serves as an essential backdrop for understanding the shifts we see in the weather.

    For major TV news outlets, the responsibility goes beyond merely reporting on the immediate events surrounding a storm or wildfire. While such extreme weather captures public attention, the undeniable influence of global warming must also be consistently reported, offering crucial context for viewers to understand the necessity of climate action.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; and NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press as well as all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for the term “Hilary” (including misspellings) within close proximity of any of the terms “storm,” “hurricane,” “category 4,” “California,” “Mexico,” “Baja,” “Nevada,” “San Diego,” “Las Vegas,” “Los Angeles,” “Yuma,” or “western” or any variation of the term “southwest” from August 18, 2023, when Hilary grew into a Category 4 hurricane, through August 21, 2023.

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when Hurricane Hilary was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of the storm. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the hurricane with one another.

    We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the storm without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the host or anchor promoted a segment about the hurricane scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed the identified segments for any mention of climate change or global warming.