July 26, 2018

National and State Media Failing to Connect Recent Extreme Heat Events to Climate Change

Climate Change Mentions Are Hard to Find in Coverage of Record Setting Summer Heatwaves

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The media is mostly ignoring the leading cause of record-breaking temperatures seen by several states in recent weeks, a Public Citizen report (PDF) found.

The report, which examined media coverage of extreme heat and climate change from Jan. 1 to July 8, found that among the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation, a total of 760 articles mentioned extreme heat, heatwaves, record heat, or record temperatures, but only 134 of these pieces, or 17.6 percent, also mentioned climate change.

“Climate change is already harming Americans, and soon it will pose an existential threat,” said David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program. “But most Americans still think of the problem as distant, hurting people long in the future or in faraway places. The media’s failure to cover climate has a big role in that complacency. We need much better reporting if the public is going to wake up and demand action in time to prevent catastrophe.”

Additionally, 10 of the top 50 newspapers have not mentioned climate change at all in the context of extreme heat in 2018, although all of them have published one or more heat-related articles.

The report looked in more detail at media coverage during a 12-day period from June 27 to July 8, when more than 400 daily maximum temperature records were broken in localities in 37 states. It examined newspaper coverage in the 13 states in which 10 or more heat records were set.

The report found a wide variety in the quality of coverage. In general, local newspapers did significantly worse than the top 50 papers, connecting extreme heat to climate change only 11 percent of the time, and just 4 percent of the time during the recent heatwave.

Television networks performed the worst of all outlets. National programming from ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Network, and MSNBC mentioned climate change in 16 heat-related pieces out of 226 total pieces to date in 2018, or only about 7 percent of the time, and connected heat to climate change just once during the recent heatwave. ABC has not discussed the topics together all year, nor has Fox News Network, with arguable the exception of one segment in which the host engages in climate denial in response to a cold snap.

No single heat event, alone, is an indicator of global warming, but this nearly two-week period of extreme heat in the U.S. and abroad—and the experiences that came with it, ranging from inconvenience to chaos—is exactly what we can expect in a warming world.

The analysis also considered qualitative aspects of sound reporting on heat and climate. Of the new articles that mentioned climate change or global warming, about 25 percent of the top 50 outlets and about 25 percent of state newspapers quoted climate experts, while about 20 percent of the articles came from newswires or national outlets.

“Overall, these findings suggest that the extreme heat event that scorched much of the U.S. over nearly two weeks in late June and early July 2018 failed to prompt conversations about climate change in national or local media,” said Arkush. “The media is failing at the job of covering one of the most important issues of our time.”

###