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In 2018, Major Media Often Failed to Connect Climate Change to Extreme Weather Events

Jan. 31, 2019

In 2018, Major Media Often Failed to Connect Climate Change to Extreme Weather Events

Public Citizen Analysis Finds Improvements, But Media Continue to Lag on Connecting Climate Change to Relevant Topics

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Mainstream media outlets often failed to connect climate change to extreme weather events, including major hurricanes, record-breaking forest fires and heat, in 2018, according to a new analysis by Public Citizen. When discussing climate change, they also overwhelmingly failed to discuss solutions.

The analysis, “Carbon Omission: How the U.S. Media Failed to Connect Extreme Weather to Climate Change in 2018,” looked at television news transcripts, newspaper articles and digital news on climate-relevant topics to find the number of pieces that mentioned climate change. Public Citizen accessed transcripts from six national television news networks (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and NBC) and articles from the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation. For online sources, Public Citizen used Media Cloud’s “U.S. Top Online News 2017” collection. As a result of this methodology, the analysis does not include some significant midsized papers or Capitol Hill dailies.

The analysis found that the proportion of news pieces that mentioned climate change in relevant contexts – such as drought and floods – was decidedly low. Even when discussing extraordinary heat – using phrases like “extreme heat” or “record heat wave” – media mentioned climate change just 34 percent of the time. The figure for drought was similar, at 35 percent.

The year also saw multiple hurricanes whose destruction was exacerbated by climate change, like Florence and Michael, but media connections to climate were much scarcer in that context. Although it is understandable that many pieces are nuts-and-bolts stories about where to find shelter, or where to go after the storm has passed for food and water, the lack of mention of climate change is still dramatic. Major online news sources published more than 10,000 pieces on the two storms, but only 10 percent of those pieces mentioned climate change. For television news, a mere 8 percent of segments made the connection, while print media fared even worse at 5 percent. However, these numbers are an improvement over the previous year (6 percent for television and online media and 3 percent for newspapers.)

“News outlets are giving the crisis our time far less attention than it merits – and far less than the public wants,” said David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program. “The media have a major role to play in jump-starting the kind of national conversation we need to rise to this challenge, and there is plenty of reason to believe better climate coverage would engage audiences.”

One bright spot is that the media did better in 2018 than 2017 on most topics – often significantly better. There also were numerous excellent pieces by individual reporters, as well as a few publications that stood out as producing a high volume of high-quality work and. Perhaps most notable was the launch of the Invading Sea project, a collaborative effort by the Miami Herald, The Palm Beach Post, the South Florida Sun Sentinel and WLRN Public Media to spur action on the threat of sea-level rise in Florida.

One of the most important aspects of climate change is solutions, the report notes, in particular their feasibility, affordability and popularity. But news media mentioned mitigation or solutions just 13 percent of the time when discussing climate change. For newspapers, the figure was 8 percent and for television news just 5 percent. Online news significantly boosted the average, with a rate of 16 percent.

“It’s tough to solve a crisis that people aren’t talking about,” said Arkush, “News outlets need to report accurately and more frequently on the urgency and severity of the crisis, as well as the fact that we have excellent, extremely popular solutions for most of the problem.”

Read the full analysis.