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Network News Diminishes Urgency, Severity of Climate Change

Very Few Segments Call Climate Change a ‘Crisis’ or an ‘Emergency’

WASHINGTON, D.C. – 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, a Public Citizen report shows.

According to the report, 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.

In 2018, Fox News mentioned the words crisis or emergency in relation to climate change on five occasions. All five were attempts to minimize the issue with false logic, mockery or misinformation.

“Words matter – and the words we use to characterize an issue make a difference in how it is perceived and prioritized politically,” said David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program. “When media outlets consistently fail to use language that conveys that climate change is a crisis or emergency, they unwittingly put a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of complacency and inaction.”

The report comes as the Climate Reality Project and Public Citizen prepare to launch a campaign on May 1 to pressure national television news outlets to call climate change a crisis – and cover it like one. The campaign includes a petition drive, a letter to network CEOs and a May 8 Tweetstorm aimed at the networks.
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, the report stated.

“Climate coverage on broadcast and cable television news is still at best spotty and at worst riddled with misinformation,” said Allison Fisher, outreach director for Public Citizen’s Energy Program. “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.”

For the analysis, Public Citizen evaluated television news transcripts that included the word “crisis” or “emergency” within 75 words of “climate change” or “global warming.” Public Citizen used Nexis to search transcripts from six national television news networks: ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and NBC.

Read the full report here.