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National TV news is beginning to connect climate change to extreme weather. Now they must continue to deepen their coverage

Media Matters reviewed a combined 106 climate segments that broadcast and cable news aired during July 8-12 coverage of the Western U.S. heat wave, during July 21-27 coverage of wildfires, and during August 11-18 coverage of multiple extreme weather events in the United States and abroad. Our analysis found that only 17 segments, or 16%, discussed how climate-driven extreme weather affects socially marginalized communities.

This is journalistic malpractice.

Broadcast and cable news performed slightly better in connecting extreme weather to climate action: 24 climate segments, or 23%, mentioned the potential climate impacts of the current infrastructure and reconciliation bills moving through Congress, the need of resiliency and mitigation planning for future extreme weather events, or a more general call to cut carbon emissions. However, there is still a large disconnect between the reporting on the scale of these climate-driven events and reporting on local, federal, and global actions to address climate change.

In addition to showing how rarely people most vulnerable to climate change were mentioned during extreme weather segments, the data also gives us insight into how news programs prioritized climate change in their coverage. Our analysis found that extreme weather segments that mentioned climate change were the lead segment only five times, or 5%. Even the best climate segments often aired toward the middle or end of an episode. 

Qualitatively, we found that even when climate change was mentioned during extreme weather segments, these programs rarely connected the current extreme weather event with past and future events, or concurrent events, which could leave viewers with the impression that these stories are isolated and disconnected. This reporting belies the current moment that leaves one staggered by the sheer breadth of devastating and unprecedented extreme weather events this summer alone. In just the past few weeks, there’s been blistering heat waves that have impacted tens of millions of Americans, destructive wildfires that have burned more than 600,000 acres in California and forced thousands to flee in Turkey, Greece, and France and wildfires in Siberia that have burned more land than all of the fires across the world combined. 

Most recently, drought triggered the first ever water shortage at Lake Mead, which is America’s largest reservoir, while three consecutive storms barraged the United States with deadly flooding and tornadoes and brought heavy rain to earthquake-battered Haiti. Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded in human history

These are not separate, disparate events. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent landmark climate report detailed in the starkest terms that there is “unequivocal” evidence that humans are responsible for climate change and confirmed that climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying.” But Media Matters’ recent analysis found that only 13% of broadcast and cable TV news shows even bothered to mention the climate report in their recent mid-August round of segments about the latest climate-driven extreme weather events. 

National TV news coverage of extreme weather, even when it mentions climate change, can no longer afford to cover these events in isolation, but must cover these increasingly frequent and devastating events as one congruent story. And, in telling that story, they must contextualize the challenges global warming poses to vulnerable communities and how political inaction has allowed the fossil fuel industry to pollute our air, land, and water with impunity. 

Although this quality of reporting happens far less often than it should, we reviewed some notable climate segments that point the way forward.

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