The Paris climate talks, the Clean Power Plan, Pope Francis’ calls for action — 2015 was a big year for climate and environmental stories, so you’d think that would be reflected in the coverage of the major broadcast news outlets.
Not so, according to a new report from Media Matters. The report analyzed coverage of climate change on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, and found that these networks’ nightly news and Sunday programs covered climate change 5 percent less in 2015 than they did in 2014. In all, the networks aired 146 minutes — or less than two and a half hours — of climate change coverage last year. ABC was the worst offender — the network reduced its climate coverage by 59 percent compared to 2014, and ended up devoting a total of just 13 minutes to the issue.
Networks covered the New England Patriots’ Deflategate scandal and the Superbowl about twice as much as they covered climate change, said Denise Robbins, deputy climate and energy program director at Media Matters and one of the report’s authors. They also covered Trump’s campaign about five times as much, she said, pointing to data from the Tyndall Report on what networks covered in 2015.
That’s not to say that many of the other topics news media covered aren’t valid. But Robbins said it’s surprising that a decline in coverage could come in a year that “was likely the most momentous year for climate change news. It’s shocking, and it shouldn’t have happened.”
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Fox, Media Matters found, was the only network to increase its climate coverage in 2015. But that increase consisted mostly of Fox hosts and guests disparaging efforts to combat climate change. In November, for instance, Fox News Sunday asked a panel of commentators about the president’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Former Bush adviser Karl Rove called the president’s move “delusional” and said the rejection won’t have any impact on reducing emissions.
That kind of coverage points to a different problem in broadcast news: that even when climate is covered, it isn’t always covered accurately. Instead, networks are “increasingly providing a platform for climate denial — something that increased this past year as coverage declined,” Robbins said. “Which is itself, I think, worse than the fact that they aired seven minutes less total climate coverage than last year. We’re long past the debate; we’re long past figuring out what’s causing climate change, but since we have so many presidential candidates that are pushing climate denial, it becomes easier for networks to air those views.”
The Media Matters report focused solely on broadcast network coverage, but mentions of and questions about climate change have also been scarce in the presidential race. A Republican debate in September went three hours with only one mention of climate change, and multiple Republican and Democratic debates have come and gone without a question on climate change. With the debates in Florida — a state highly susceptible to climate impacts, particularly sea level rise — this week, a group of Florida mayors are calling on debate moderators to ask the candidates questions about what they would do to help the country adapt to and mitigate climate change.
Robbins said that she’d like to start seeing news show hosts pushing back against guests that aren’t accurately speaking about climate coverage.
“When we have prominent people pushing false views, the least the networks can do is correct them and get the full story,” she said.
There is a bright spot in Media Matters’ research, however. The study’s authors compared coverage of the major broadcast news networks to that of PBS, and found that the public news network had more coverage of climate impacts than nearly any other network. PBS also provided more coverage of both the Pope’s calls for action on climate and the Paris climate summit.
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“PBS is the gold standard of networks that we hold others to in terms of climate coverage,” Robbins said.
And, while many network news outlets aren’t providing the most comprehensive coverage on climate change, many online and print outlets are picking up the slack. Major networks largely ignored the New York Attorney General’s investigation of whether ExxonMobil knowingly misled the public about climate change, but it was covered more widely in print and online outlets (and originally revealed by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times.)