Coverage of climate change on network news programs was up 68 percent in 2019 after a dip in 2018, according to an annual study by the nonprofit watchdog group Media Matters for America. But even though broadcast TV networks spent more time talking about climate change, they didn’t interview very many scientists, women, or people of color. Just 10 percent of guests were people of color, 27 percent were women, and 22 percent were scientists.
Protests, fires in the Amazon rainforest, elections, and the Green New Deal drove the rise in climate coverage last year. Nightly and Sunday morning news shows spent 238 minutes reporting on climate change in 2019, compared to 142 minutes in 2018. People are beginning to see and experience the dangers that climate change poses, Allison Fisher, a program director at Media Matters, tells The Verge, and that could be behind the bump in coverage. She adds, however, that it’s a problem that climate experts and communities on the frontlines of climate change are still underrepresented in the media.
Mass demonstrations across the globe in 2019 “just became impossible to turn away from,” Fisher says. “[Climate activists were] demonstrating every week, they’re walking out of school, they’re occupying offices of Congress … it really changed the way that the media was looking at this issue. They started looking at it through the eyes of people that were in the streets,” she says.
Some of the most influential activists stirring up the brouhahas around climate change are women and people of color, Fisher says. Activist Greta Thunberg incited so many students across the globe to walk out of class that Collins Dictionary named “climate strike” its word of the year in 2019. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced a resolution for a wide-ranging policy package called the Green New Deal. The push for a Green New Deal was also spearheaded by the youth-led activist group Sunrise Movement, which is headed up by Varshini Prakash who often speaks about how her grandparents’ hometown outside Chennai, India, was flooded in 2015 and remains vulnerable to sea level rise.
So when mostly male, mostly white talking heads, politicians, and journalists are snagging a majority of the limited airtime devoted to climate change on television, “it’s extremely unfortunate because it’s underrepresentation; it’s a misrepresentation of what the movement actually looks like right now,” says Fisher.
The lack of scientists is a persistent issue, too, according to Fisher. “The broadcast news programs are just not bringing on experts to explain and help people make heads or tails of the experience that they’re seeing, whether it’s extreme weather, hurricane or heat, or some other climate fueled event,” she says. Diversity within scientists interviewed was also scarce: just six out of the 50 scientists featured were women, and just one scientist was a woman of color.
To figure out how much time was dedicated to the climate crisis across corporate television networks, Media Matters for America searched for “climate change” and related terms on transcripts from the Nexis database. It analyzed nightly news programs and Sunday morning political programs on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.
Almost 40 percent of climate segments aired in August and September 2019. That’s when unprecedented fires in the Amazon rainforest sparked concerns that the disaster would also exacerbate the climate crisis. A global climate strike took place in September, and demonstrations surrounded a United Nations summit in New York on the issue.
The Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation launched a project called Covering Climate Now in 2019, which is an initiative to get newsrooms to commit to reporting on the “defining story of our time.” CBS News was the only corporate broadcast television network to sign on, and last year, it dedicated twice as long to climate change as the other networks combined.
“The media’s minimization of the looming disaster is one of our great journalistic failures,” The Nation environmental correspondent Mark Hertsgaard and CJR editor-in-chief and publisher Kyle Pope wrote in September.