Call it a Crisis: The Role of U.S. Network News in Communicating the Urgency of Climate Change

Call it a Crisis Report

When U.S. television news networks discuss climate change and its impacts, few news reports call the phenomena a “crisis” or “emergency,” a designation clearly merited by the science.

Summary

In 2018, only 50 of 1,429 national television news segments (3.5 percent) that mentioned climate change referred to it by either of these terms. CNN had the most mentions with 26, but it trailed MSNBC and NBC in the rate of mentions. MSNBC used the terms crisis or emergency in 7 percent of its segments; NBC in 6 percent; and CNN in 3 percent.

The first quarter of 2019 saw a spike in mentions of climate as a crisis or emergency. Through April 24, 141 segments referred to climate change by those terms, almost triple the number for all of 2018. However, a major reason for the increase was the president’s declaration of a national emergency at the border. Sixty-three percent of the uses of crisis or emergency language in 2019 discussed whether a future Democratic president could use the same power as Trump to designate climate change as a national emergency.

The number still improved significantly if one excludes segments discussing Trump’s emergency declaration. The adjusted figure is 52 uses of crisis or emergency in the first quarter of 2019, which is more than the total for 2018 (50). This is a positive trend, but the percentage of mentions is still far too low, with only 7 percent of all segments in 2019 referring to climate change as a crisis or emergency.

“Climate coverage on broadcast and cable television news is still at best spotty and at worst riddled with misinformation. Calling it a crisis indicates that the stakes are high and that the issue is urgent. Most of all it signals to viewers that the time to act on climate is now.” Allison Fisher, outreach director for Public Citizen’s Energy Program

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