Mixed Bag: Most Major Media Struggle to Connect July Heat to Climate Crisis

Public Citizen Calls on U.S. Media to Better Connect Extreme Heat to the Climate Crisis and Worker Safety

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Major U.S. media outlets generally failed to connect extreme heat in July to the climate crisis, although major television networks did better compared to last year, according to a new Public Citizen analysis.

The report examined media coverage of extreme heat and climate from July 14 to July 23, capturing reporting leading up to the U.S. heat wave and through the day that heat wave broke. Public Citizen looked at the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation and national programming from ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News Network, MSNBC and NBC.

In the top 50 papers, 162 articles mentioned the extreme heat, but only about a quarter of those (38) also mentioned climate or global warming. Additionally, nearly half (17) of those stories were about heat in general or were about heat waves other than the one experienced by two-thirds of the U.S. population. Thirteen papers published at least one article on the heat wave with no mention of climate. Nine of the top 50 papers did not publish an article on the July heat wave.

The six television news networks mentioned climate in 15 of 94 heat-related pieces (16%) during this same period. Although the percentage is low, it represents a significant improvement over coverage of the 2018 heat wave, in which climate was mentioned in just one of 114 segments (0.9%).

Additionally, of the articles that mentioned the climate crisis, about three-quarters of the top 50 outlets quoted climate experts or cited climate science on the connection between extreme heat and the climate crisis. The same was true of two-thirds of broadcast segments. Only one segment, appearing on CBS, included an interview with a scientist.

Public Citizen has long pushed media outlets to better connect extreme climate events, including heat, to the climate crisis and urges journalists to continue to make this connection at every opportunity as the summer continues. Media also should consult climate experts to report on when drawing conclusions about how current weather events fit into broader, human-altered climate trends.

“Journalists are finally starting to connect brutal heat waves to our increasingly warming world, but it’s still not enough,” said Allison Fisher, outreach director of Public Citizen’s energy program and author of the report. “The science is there, and there are stories to be told that illustrate the impact the climate crisis is having on our workers and most vulnerable populations. Going forward, the media must use these moments to not just tell us how hot it is, but why and what we can do to about it.”

For this analysis, Public Citizen used Lexis to search for terms related to extreme heat and then searched again for those terms and “climate” or “global warming.” Many significant local dailies are not included, such as The Palm Beach Post and The Charlotte Observer. The same is true of papers that cover Capitol Hill, like The Hill, Politico and Roll Call. This analysis also does not include radio, local television or online news articles.

Read the full analysis here.