Television News Outlets Ignore Climate Change During Sandy Coverage. Should We Really Be Surprised?

In a recent interview with MTV, President Obama said he was “surprised” that climate didn’t come up in the presidential debates. This isn’t a very good excuse for avoiding discussion of the problem, particularly when you’re debating your opponent over drilling for fossil fuels and promoting clean energy.

But is it really a surprise that it didn’t get mentioned by a moderator?

After all, there are virtually no demands from broadcast journalists that political leaders actually talk about the problem. And the climate silence stretches far beyond the presidential debates. Coverage of Hurricane Sandy is the latest example.

Yesterday, while Superstorm Sandy passed over Washington, I hunkered down in front of my television and watched coverage of the storm. As I flipped between cable and network news shows, I was subjected to the same endless parade of reporters swaying in the wind, wading through flooded streets, and talking about projected catastrophic damage. But throughout it all, there were no mentions of the dramatic increases in extreme weather and no mentions of the influence of a warming planet on extreme storms like Sandy. According to tracking from TVEyes, there were only a couple quick references on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Monday morning and nothing on the other networks throughout the day.

This also shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. So little of television news is designed to put issues in context, particularly during times of emergency when outlets are intensely competing for viewers looking for disaster updates.

But there are too many factors to ignore. In September, we saw our 331st month in a row with global temperatures above the 20th century average. Meanwhile in 2012, we’ve seen record Arctic ice loss, and the U.S. has faced two record heat waves, a record drought, an above-average fire season, and now, an “unprecedented” hurricane.

The climate factors behind individual events like Superstorm Sandy are complex. But one thing is clear: the extra energy in the atmosphere from greenhouse gases increases the probability of extreme weather events.

“This isn’t the atmosphere I grew up with,” explained meteorologist Jeff Masters during this spring’s record heat wave.

“The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about,” said University of Arizona scientist Jonathan Overpeck, speaking to the Associated Press about this summer’s extreme weather.

Scientists have coined two really effective metaphors for communicating this change. NASA’s James Hansen likes to call it “loading the climate dice.” And others have compared the influence of greenhouse gases on extreme weather to a baseball hitter taking steroids. Both effectively illustrate how heat-trapping gases increase the probability and intensity of drought, heat, and storms.

These are good tools for reporters when explaining a very complex issue like climate change. However, rather than use them, reporters continue to ignore the problem altogether — choosing instead to focus on easy stories like flooded streets and electricity outages. Of course, these are important for getting people messages to keep them safe. But throughout the day yesterday, no outlet made an attempt to connect climate and extreme weather.

Research from Media Matters for America shows just how ridiculous this climate avoidance gets.

During this July’s extreme heat wave, only 8.7 percent of television news coverage mentioned climate change; over the summer, television news outlets covered Paul Ryan’s P90-X workouts three times more than the record loss of Arctic sea ice; and between 2009 and 2011, coverage of climate change on television news outlets plummeted by 90 percent — with every network covering Donald Trump more than climate issues.

After one recent presidential debate, CNN’s Candy Crowley inadvertently revealed how many television news reporters feel about climate. During the post-debate analysis, Crowley regretted not asking a question “for all you climate people” — dismissing climate as a fringe issue that doesn’t have any bearing on anything else being discussed.

And therefore, you get the kind of television coverage we’ve seen around Superstorm Sandy: anchors talking for hours about a broken crane in New York City; reporters sitting for hours in the middle of a flooded street saying very little new about water levels; and the complete avoidance of any scientific explanation of the factors driving extreme weather.

If we want our political leaders to start talking about climate change, we also need reporters to do the same when the opportunity arises. This was yet another failed opportunity.

Note: there are some outlets making a good effort on this issue. Check out the yesterday’s Sandy segments from Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks and Jennifer Granholm of The War Room — two shows on Current TV that often draw a very clear climate connection to stories. In addition, Chris Hayes of MSNBC had an extensive climate segment earlier this month, in which he called out the candidates for their climate silence.


28 Responses to Television News Outlets Ignore Climate Change During Sandy Coverage. Should We Really Be Surprised?

  1. Dano says:

    As soon as corporate-controlled media disappears, this situation will change. Don’t expect anything else until then, as profits are at stake here.



  2. Nick B says:

    The BBC here in the UK described the storm as a “freak” occurrence. The Met Office here is grossly out of touch with anything connected to the global climate and constantly pedals rubbish relating to their IPCC 2007 friendly models. Events have overtaken them and they haven’t even noticed.

  3. There’s a difference between what *should* happen and what *can* happen on TV. I’m all for climate honesty. But it has to be done in a way that builds legitimacy for action in the broad public, because the measures we need to take are pretty intense and will rub a large segment of the population (read: the Tea Party and its cranky fellow travelers) the wrong way.

    The two networks cited as good examples of climate honesty encapsulate the problem: most climate deniers suspect that climate change is a Trojan horse for a left-leaning agenda. We know it’s not that, but we’re talking about a large group of very unreasonable and unreasoning people who stop at the fact that Current TV is run by Al Gore. That is the end of the conversation. It doesn’t matter that Mr. Gore is absolutely right.

    What does matter is finding a way past the irrational, knee-jerk reactions of the deniers. Taking the opportunity to link the weather (the symptom) to the underlying problem (the disease) should work, if it comes from the right sources. But the networks don’t do it because it loses eyeballs. The MSNBC and Current TV crowd is the demographic that accepts the message. It reinforces ad revenues. At Fox, just to go to the other extreme, the audience would turn off the TV.

    To illustrate: I was channel-surfing one day and went by Fox doing an interview with Katherine Hayhoe, a fundamentalist Christian climate scientist. No doubt the “news anchor” (who, like all female Fox news anchors, was designed to maximize eyeballs) expected Dr. Hayhoe to call climate change a crock. She asked her directly if climate change was caused by humans. Dr. Hayhoe said one word: “Yes.”

    The anchor was stunned silent. Then she sputtered, “No, it’s not,” and cut the interview short.

    That is the crux of the problem. How do we get an unwilling audience to sit still for a truth they don’t want to hear? It’s a lot like religious conversion. Hm, maybe Romney has a leg up there–Mormons are required to do a couple years of missionary work. If only he had integrity.

  4. Stephen says:

    Today, I heard the BBC also refer to Sandy as a “once in a generation” event.

    Strangely (or not) the BBC has had articles on Climate Change … But they very, very rarely ever mention climate change when reporting on an unusually or extreme weather event. They simply appear, as you say, as “freak” events to the BBC with no connection to anything.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    I’m surprised that anyone is surprised by non or bad coverage of climate change by the television networks. There was a brief flurry after Katrina and Gore’s movie, but the big boys took network executives to the woodshed after that, and made sure they now play ball.

    The networks are not reformable. All are owned by a major media company, and TV shows remain their only cash cows. Advertised products tend to be cars, trucks, frivolous home items, etc, all of which are owned by right wing corporations. They especially like “content” that is actually an informercial, such as the shows about loggers and oil tanker drivers in the Arctic.

    Newspapers and magazines are bleeding money, and movie studios just had one of their worst years ever. They depend on TV, and are scared.

    It costs too much money to create a network from scratch, especially if your content has to compete with low cost garbage like “Keeping up with the Kardashians”. Our only hope is to monitor the networks, then shame them, publicly and in detail. They will soon learn that they will either have to change or be replaced. Some of us are working on this project now.

  6. syd bridges says:

    In the Norse legends, the gods tolerated the evil of Loki for too long. He was amusing and brought wonderful gifts like Odin’s magic ring, Draupnir, and Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir. This tolerance allowed Loki to engineer the death of Baldur, destroying the gods’ innocence and dooming them to eventual destruction. Too late they chained him and his fearful wolf son, Fenris.
    Now we tolerate carbon pollution because it is useful. It gives us fire (and Loki was the god of fire). Now its son, global warming, is, like Fenris, becoming ever stronger. We are frightened by it, but dare not chain it. Tyr had to sacrifice a hand to chain Fenris, but we are not prepared to sacrifice a little luxury to chain global warming.
    Those in the media are spineless as it could cost them sponsorship. They are supposed to be our watchmen, but they do nothing. The Norse gods, too, had a Watchman, Heimdall, but he did a very good job. If he had been like our bozo MSM, the gods would have been massacred before they could even leave Valhalla.
    These old legends contained truths that do not change. Our forebears knew that the penalty for inaction in the face of a great threat would be very heavy indeed. Sadly, I fear we will relearn that lesson only through catastrophe.

  7. The following is true: I was just watching CNN’s coverage (because I was at a friend’s house) and Wolf Blitzer was earnestly recounting the devastation wrought by Sandy (with the mandatory baffled meteorologist commenting ‘we have simply not seen a storm like this before’). During that 10 minute period there was 1)A commercial or ‘clean coal’ (which is a sponsor of CNN) 2) A commercial by the natural gas industry 3) A commercial by the American Petroleum Institute. Truly.

  8. Organelle says:

    Chris Matthews Hardball doing a segment on Global Warming. Complete with climate science.

  9. Organelle says:

    They ended the segment saying we absolutely must turn to clean energy now. The young people know this. Talking to Romney about it is like talking to an empty chair.

  10. David Isler says:

    The owned perform for their owner, not us.

  11. Charles Almon says:

    You expect science on TV.
    The stories always degenerate into human interest crap ‘DOg lost during Sandy found -renamed Sandy’.

  12. Lore says:

    Chris Matthews just hit the issue head on during tonight’s segment of Hardball televised on MNBC. His guests were Congressman Ed Markey, Massachusetts 7th District and Prof. Michael Oppenheimer. Chris made a no bones attack against the layman ne’er-do-wells and jackanapes that have contrived to blunt the data and impact of climate change.

  13. Erdman West says:

    THERE IS NO STORM!! Republican “scientists” [formerly dumpster divers] announce once again that climate change is bogus. To quote, “Storm, what storm? ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH! WHOOOSH followed by silence.

  14. Artful Dodger says:

    Hi Dano, hi Stephen,

    I’ve been quite surprised that there actually has been decent cover on the relationship between climate change and hurricane Sandy.

    It’s out there for the open minded. I’m not complaining about the MSM coverage.


  15. Tom Bennion says:

    This seems to me to be a definite turning point in terms of more open discussion about climate change. Bill Clinton’s speech today, focusing on Romney’s joke about climate change at the GOP convention, is an example.

    Now is as good a moment as any to pivot and say, this storm is the real world cost of using fossil fuels. You build Keystone, you lose your beach, and probably your house. At the very least, your insurance premiums will go up.

    I also like an idea I saw somewhere that future super storms should be named after large oil and coal companies.

  16. Jack Burton says:

    I saw the hardball show and it was refreshing to hear someone speak honestly about climate change.
    The media ignores climate science because the owners of media do not want the issue publicized. Corporate owners are responding to their advertisers. Those advertisers are in many cases fossil fuel producers. naturally THEY want silence on the issue.
    Do not expect American media to cover the issue of global warming, they are paid well NOT to.
    To follow the issue you need to use the internet and read the reputable climate blogs and sites. The general public are being heavily propagandized by the corporate media and the behest of their fossil fuel industry advertisers. It is THAT simple. Expect NO improvement in this regard.

  17. jk says:

    Tonight the ABC Special 20/20 about the storm talked briefly about climate change, featuring NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo making a clear connection between the storm and climate change.

  18. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    Joe remember a couple of years ago we all made lists of events that we thought would be the wake-up call for action on carbon pollution and climate change? My top three were Artic Ice gone, massive Greenland melting, A Cat 5 hurricane hitting New York.
    It seems not even a hurricane/nor-easter hybrid devastating the northeast coast and affecting all states east of the Mississippi River, not to mention the drought of 2012 will be enough to move America on this All life threating issue.

  19. Freethinker says:

    NPR (via WBEZ) has peppered the airwaves today with an unusually high number of climate change mentions plus the broadcast of a recently taped program, “Climate One” from The Commonwealth Club. As NPR seems to be largely patronized by our political class and corporate interests to manipulate public opinion, it seems NPR will serve as a platform to casually shift the public’s confusion and frustration about prior climate change denial/silence from gov’t officials and corporations to fear-based demands for free market solutions — cap & trade (more Wall Street gambling schemes) and risky technologies (geoengineering, fracking, nuclear). The prognosis for most of us appears bleaker as the agenda of the 1% is brought into view.

  20. Anne says:

    Posted October 30, 2012, 5:46 pm on NYT’s blog called “GREEN” – “Did Global Warming Contribute to Hurricane Sandy’s Devastation?”
    Kevin Trenberth is quoted. He’s ever so careful to understate the contribution of warmer oceans, a warmer climate.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Corporate controlled MSM will only ‘disappear’ when capitalism disappears. The MSM is the absolutely essential propaganda and brainwashing apparatus required to cement elite dominance over the rest of humanity. The rulers of mankind will never willingly allow their propaganda monopoly to be overturned. Never.

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The BBC is pure Establishment propaganda, so there will be downplaying of all ecological disasters in the interests of the rich rulers of society. Likewise al Jazeera, the propaganda mouthpiece of Qatar, the Gulf hydrocarbon colossus, also speaks of Sandy as ‘once in a generation’. A generation of cats, perhaps.

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Fox News is the ‘Ministry of Truth’ and Rupert is Big Brother. Well, to be more precise, both are, in truth, more extreme than Orwell imagined. Indeed they may be more extreme than Orwell could have foreseen.

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I hate to be a pedant (really!) but the Gods lived in Asgard, did they not? Whatever, the question must be- who is our Loki? I nominate Rupert M, out of misplaced Australian jingoism. I know he switched sides a while back, but he was shaped by Australia, for which I, on behalf of the ever dwindling sane fraction of the great Australian public, apologise.

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Love ‘jackanapes’. Up there with poltroons, no doubt about it.

  26. perceptiventity says:

    This struggle shouldn’t just turn into an elitist class thing. Environmentalists should try not to despise but unite with workers against corporations who are so effective at pitting us against each other and watch the feathers fly. We are also dimwits compared to many a human in many rspects.

    ‘KMO welcomes workshop leader, lecturer, writer, bookseller, and egaged citizen, Paul Cienfuegos to the C-Realm to talk about the use of community rights laws to resist corporate rule. Paul explains to fundamental flaws of a regulatory model for curtailing the harms inflicted upon communities by corporations, and he cites examples of community rights legislation that has trumped corporate charters and the constitutional rights that corporations have gained via two centuries of judicial activism.’

  27. john says:

    The argument isn’t in the forefront anymore because the argument came down to this…

    Is Climate Change Man Made?
    Is Climate Change the way god wants us to live?