The Amazon Fires Get the Full Climate Treatment by the Media

By Allison Fisher

Last week, social media pushed the Amazon Fires – already raging for three weeks – onto the national stage.  By mid-week, #PrayForTheAmazon was trending on social media.  

One of the most common messages that accompanied the hashtag and all its permutations was: Where is the mainstream media coverage of this unprecedented horror?  

It is a throw-your-hands-in-the-air observation too familiar to those who have been sounding the alarm on the climate crisis for decades.

In fact, a review of the Amazon fires coverage by the six major television news networks – ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, NBC and MSNBC – from Aug. 21 through Aug. 25 offers a microcosm of what climate coverage has looked like over the past several years.  

With few exceptions, television news networks made the same missteps in covering the Amazon fires as they have for years on climate-related topics:

Silence

Overcoming climate silence – and the on-going paucity of coverage – in the media as been a huge hurdle for advocates and the scientific community.  

The fires in the Amazon burned for three weeks before major U.S. news television networks began breaking their silence on the shuddering series of horrors unfolding in South America. The first mentions of the Amazon fires by major television news programs occurred on Aug. 21 by four of the six major news networks – CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC.  CBS’s initial segment even acknowledged the lack of coverage:

Here’s a few of the stories we think you’ll be talking about today. You should be talking about this one because it’s not quite frankly getting enough coverage here in the U.S. Brazilian scientists say there are a record number of fires burning right now in the Amazon rainforest.  

– CBS Correspondent David Begnaud, Aug. 21

The media coverage since then has been grossly insufficient. This point was driven home by the comparison (by the Twittersphere) of the Notre Dame fire coverage in April 2019, which became near instant worldwide news, to the huge lag and dirth of reporting on the Amazon fire.  And the contrast is well founded. A comparison of the Notre Dame coverage and Amazon fire coverage by Media Matters shows the enormous disparity between the initial coverage of the cathedral blaze and the South American fire. 

The major television news networks ran a total of 50 segments on the Amazon fire over a five-day period, starting three weeks after the fires began.  CNN is responsible for 35 of the segments (70%). As of August 25, ABC had not aired a segment on the Amazon fires. 

Set Up a False Debate

The media is, in part, responsible for perpetuating the false debate around the occurrence and cause of global warming. Based on the journalistic imperative for balance, in general, the media will present both sides of what is perceived as a two-sided argument. For climate, this need for balance has been a huge disservice to public understanding of the crisis and boost to those deliberately trying to mislead the public on the issue.

Some of the same “he said/she said” reporting that has plagued climate coverage has crept into the Amazon fires coverage as well.

A central question regarding the Amazon fires is who is responsible. What all sides agree on is that humans are setting the forest on fire, accounting for an unprecedented uptick of blazes 22 of the segments (45%) are reporting that. But some outlets are also reporting conflicting accounts of exactly who is setting the fires.

Here is a typical segment on the question of who is responsible:

Critics of Brazil’s leadership say President Jair Bolsonaro is partly to blame. He’s been accused of relaxing environmental rules and opening parts of the rainforest to businesses in an effort to improve Brazil’s economy. For his part, President Bolsonaro has suggested that non-profit organizations which have lost funding from the government might have started the fires because they’re hoping to generate negative attention on the president and the government. While that debate rages on, activists are warning that if they’re not stopped, the wildfires could turn parts of the Amazon into a dry savannah that’s no longer inhabitable for a lot of wildlife.

– Carl Azuz, CNN anchor, August 23.

Nine of the 22 (45%) segments represent both the baseless position of President Bolsonaro and the evidence-based position that farmers are starting the fires. Four of the nine qualify President Bolsonaro’s remarks by either mentioning his call to deforest the Amazon for profit or by pointing out that there is no basis for his claim that NGOs started the fires. The remaining five characterize responsibility for the increased fire activity as a debate or “war of words” between the Brazilian president and environmentalists.

There is no real debate. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has cut millions from the budget of Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, appointed new ministers who are loosening restrictions on mining, logging and farming in protected areas and has called for the razing of the Amazon for agro-industry and profit-making. In response, farmers are setting fire to the forest to clear land. 

Thirteen of the 23 segments (57%) identified just one group as the responsible party.  Fortunately the majority 8 of 13, reported those seeking profit from deforestation as setting the fires. But, four presented the baseless statement by the President of Brazil, suggesting that the NGOs he defunded set the fires.  Three of these four segments appeared on Fox News. Only one Fox News segment suggested that there was opposition to President Bolsonaro’s statement.

Shut out Scientists

By and large, climate experts are not invited by major television news outlets to communicate climate science or explain major climate events to the public.  The same has been true of segments on the fires.  

Of the 50 segments on the Amazon fires only five or less than 10% included comments by experts. The networks that employed experts to communicate the impacts of the Amazon Fires were CNN with two segments and CBS, NBC and MSNBC, with one segment each.   

Somebody Gets it Really Right

Not all climate coverage is equal – and the Amazon fires reporting has offered its own version of “the good, the bad and the ugly.” In this case, “the good” was delivered by Chris Hayes. 

The segment that appeared on the “All in With Chris Hayes” on August 22 offers a model for how news programs should communicate environmental catastrophes to the public. 

Hayes checks all the boxes for good climate and environmental coverage:

He is candid about the scope of the crisis: “It’s as bad as it gets”. 

He lays out what is at stake: “The single biggest repository of natural life that takes carbon out of the air that does the thing we need more of is the Amazon.” 

He puts this catastrophe squarely in the context of the political moment we are in: “this is not just some natural thing that just happens. It is in many ways the product of politics, of right-wing politics, of a right-wing movement dedicated to climate denialism and climate destruction just like the right-wing movement we have right here in the U.S.”

He interviews an expert: “For more on what is actually happening the Amazon, I`m joined by Moira Birss. She`s a Finance Campaign Director for Amazon Watch which is an advocacy group trying to protect the rainforest.”

He asks what can we do: “Are there things — final question. Are there things the international community or people that are watching this right now and feeling that feeling of sort of like impotent sorrow can do?”

Somebody Says Something Really Stupid

Climate coverage, particularly at the hands of the Fox News Network, as been rife with misinformation – and plain stupidity.  The networks commentary of the Amazon fires has offered more of the same.  And takes the prize for both the “bad and the ugly”.  

During a segment on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” which aired on August 22, guest Daniel Turner pivots from an inflammatory discussion of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) climate plan to the Amazon fires.  He suggests that the advocates behind Sanders climate proposal are claiming that climate change caused the fires.  

Here is Turners rant and the only mention of the Amazon fires on Tucker Carlson’s top rated show:

The fires in the Amazon are man-made and they’re tragic. Right? They are tragic, but they’re not caused by climate change. There are, if you follow their philosophy of what causes climate change, I don’t agree with their philosophy or their beliefs because it’s not scientific, it’s opinion. 

To clarify, nobody in the climate community has said that climate change caused the fires – and there is scientific consensus that human activity is causing the warming of our planet. 

But for all the mishandling of the Amazon fire coverage, the non-Fox media have done a few things well:

Stakes

With the exception of Fox News, all the networks that have covered the fires have commented on what these unprecedented fires mean for not just the Amazon region, which is stark, but also the global community. Twenty-one segments (41%) mentioned the devastation that the fires bring – of biodiversity loss, destruction of wildlife, and threat to indigenous people.  

Climate Crisis

Twenty segments (41%) also mentioned what the fires mean for maintaining a livable planet.  No segment suggested that climate caused the fires. The 20 segments that connect climate to the fires, do so by pointing out the role the Amazon plays in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

Methodology

For this analysis, we searched television transcripts for “Amazon” and “fire” from August 1 to August 25, 2019 for mentions and discussion of the Amazon fires. This time frame runs from roughly when the fires through the most active coverage of the event. 

We reviewed the transcripts for mentions of climate change, characterizations of the cause of the fires, characterizations of the impacts of the fires and whether expert commentary was used.

We used Nexis to search television transcripts from six national television news networks (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and NBC). We used the “Group Duplicates” feature, set on “High Similarity.”  Transcripts were checked for false positives and duplicates. Programming that did not air during primetime hours – 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to Midnight – were not included in this review.