Viewer, beware: TV news is missing the boat on hurricane coverage

Keith Gaby

As Hurricane Dorian wreaked havoc on the Bahamas, major TV news outlets provided minute-by-minute coverage of the disaster. But they often overlooked a critical piece of information. According to the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, “climate or global warming was mentioned in just 7.2 percent of the 167 pieces on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox.”

They were talking about an epidemic without mentioning the disease causing it.

Lots of people get their information from TV news. In the case of climate change, it may be time for TV news to learn from the people.

TV news coverage of extreme weather fails to make the climate connection

Recent studies have shown that TV reporting on events that have clear climate links often don’t mention the cause. When Media Matters analyzed two weeks of coverage of a recent wave of extreme heat, they found that the major networks mentioned climate change only once — in 127 stories.

Despite the obvious connection between global warming and… things getting hotter, the TV coverage somehow missed this link. Same with big hurricanes, which scientists have repeatedly said will become more damaging and more frequent because of warmer oceans and rising sea levels. Public Citizen found that coverage of Hurricane Dorian was similar to coverage of Florence and Michael in 2018, which also rarely mentioned climate.

The connection between extreme weather and climate change is well established by scientists. News reports on a heat wave don’t have to say, “It’s so hot today because of climate change.” But it is a major piece of the story to say, “Heat waves like this are becoming hotter and more frequent because of climate change.” Ignoring the fact that climate pollution is driving these weather extremes makes the coverage seriously incomplete.

Viewers realize the urgency of the climate crisis

It’s not like people don’t want to hear about climate change. Nearly 60% percent of Americans see climate change affecting their local community — from gradual changes to monster storms like Dorian. It’s a top issue for early state primary voters in the presidential race. That’s particularly true for young people, about half of whom called climate change a crisis that “demands urgent action.”

In a poll by Morning Consult, 63% of voters said climate change is “very important” for candidates to talk about at the debate. That’s more than any other issue — about ten points higher than the (also very important) discussion of Medicare for All, which got more time in the debates.

TV news can do more to connect the dots on climate

There has been some excellent coverage by the cable and broadcast networks on climate change. Reports like the National Climate Assessment — a review of climate dangers by 13 federal agencies — have gotten widespread coverage. CNN devoted 7 hours to a town hall with presidential candidates on climate change — a remarkable commitment — and MSNBC is holding its own candidate forum.

What’s missing sometimes is the awareness of how much climate change will impact nearly everything. Long term economic concerns? The climate crisis will cost trillions, according to Citibank. The health care system? It will be stressed by climate-related health problems. National security? The Pentagon has repeatedly called climate change a national security threat.

Covering a chaotic world is tough, and TV journalists don’t have an easy job keeping up with a news cycle that flips hourly on presidential tweets. But we, as a society, are doing serious damage by continuing to pollute the climate. We need to make sure the sizzle of the day’s news doesn’t distract us from the fact that we’re cooking ourselves.