Network TV Continues Giving Climate Change Cold Shoulder

In recent weeks, network television news has understandably focused extensively on the extreme cold and snow in the Northeast and upper Midwest. But a new FAIR study shows they’ve almost completely ignored a related and even more dangerous phenomenon out West: record-shattering winter warmth. And they've overwhelmingly failed to discuss what connects the two sets of strange weather phenomena: human-caused climate disruption.


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FAIR examined ABC, CBS and NBC transcripts from January 25 (as the Northeast’s first blizzard approached) through March 4, looking at all mentions of cold, snow and ice. Over the same time period, we studied coverage of heat, warmth and drought across the West and Pacific Northwest.

Near-Exclusive Focus on East, Cold

A total of 417 network segments mentioned the extreme cold, but just seven of these included a reference to climate change--barely over 1 percent. That’s even though science is clear that climate disruption is loading the dice for extreme weather events. “Many areas are seeing bigger and more intense snowstorms, especially in the upper Midwest and Northeast,” warned Amanda Staudt, National Wildlife Federation climate scientist, back in 2010.

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NBC Nightly News (3/2/15) found room for a story about a man selling bottled Boston snow, but had little time to discuss the impact of climate change on extreme weather.

“One of the consequences of a warming ocean near a coastline like the East Coast and Washington, DC, for instance, is that you can get dumped on with more snow partly as a consequence of global warming,” Kevin Trenberth, climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, told NPR, also in 2010. A September 2014 study linked a rise in polar vortex cold blasts to Arctic sea ice loss caused by global warming. But not a single climate scientist was quoted by network TV in the entire study period.

On the CBS Evening News (2/19/15), anchor Scott Pelley at least pointed out that cold weather in one region doesn't mean that the world as a whole is cooling. “As cold as it is, a federal climate report out today says that last month was the second warmest January on record for planet Earth,” he said.

Ignoring America’s Warm, Dry West

Only 12 segments mentioned the record-setting warmth and drought out West, and that included weather updates. Just one made the link to global warming, and even that one tried to discredit the connection. “A new study from Stanford University claims the drought in California is being fueled by human-caused climate change,” Amy Robach told viewers of ABC’s Good Morning America (3/3/15). “But some scientists not involved in the study are questioning some of those findings.” What scientists? Were they independent or polluter-funded? Were the concerns valid? The story ended there.

David Muir of ABC’s World News Tonight (2/2/15) reported, “In San Francisco, no measurable rain in the entire month of January, the first time in 165 years since they started keeping records during the Gold Rush.” Was there a reason for the trend? Viewers were left in the dark, part of a pattern of journalists reporting on the effects of the climate crisis while steering clear of the cause (Extra!, 8/11, 12/13).

Virtually ignored was that more than 20 cities out West, including San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, Sacramento and Las Vegas, had their warmest winters on record, while as Weather.com (3/1/15) pointed out, “few if any cities in the East will have their coldest winters on record despite a series of high-profile blizzards and record cold waves--mainly because December was relatively mild.”

Mild winters may sound pleasant, but there could be a high price to pay come fire season. “Things are much more dry and, frankly, more ready to burn...than in [recent] memory,” Jason Curry, spokesperson for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, told the Salt Lake Tribune.

'Very Serious' or a 'Hot Potato'?

Over the time period studied, just 13 segments mentioned climate change at all. And four of those were about Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) bringing a snowball to the US Senate floor to mock climate science.

The top source of climate talk on the networks came from an unexpected source: actor and activist Rosie Perez of ABC’s The View. “What was very upsetting to me is that a man of his stature, a man of his age, doesn't understand what climate change really means,” lamented Perez on March 2 after Inhofe’s snowball stunt. She mentioned climate change’s effect on extreme weather on February 24.

And back on February 17, Perez did something literally no network journalist did over the study period: She told viewers that the scientific consensus is that manmade carbon pollution is causing global warming:

A lot of politicians, a lot of lobbyists, keep saying that they aren't scientists, but the scientists are saying that climate change is real, and part of the reason why we have so much more rain and snowfall is because what happens is when the temperatures changed in the oceans, the evaporation increases, and so you have all this condensation just held up into the sky. And because of the greenhouse gases, you know, we need the carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, but when we have too much of it, it becomes a dangerous thing. And so that’s why things are changing, and we should be taking this very seriously, especially in an election year, 2016.

Meanwhile, on the February 3 edition of Today, NBC News political director Chuck Todd cited climate change as a “hot potato” politicians should stop discussing altogether. While hosting Meet the Press on March 1, Todd applauded Inhofe’s science-mocking snowball as “a fun little prop,” but declared, “I’m not going to use that to get into a climate change debate.”

Giving Science a Voice

The climate crisis is a clear and present danger to America--from rising sea levels to strengthening storms to more intense wildfires--yet news outlets are clouding the problem in silence and creating uncertainty. Even though 2014 was the hottest year on record and temperatures continue their steady rise, media coverage of climate change remains down, according to both the University of Colorado’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research’s newspaper tracking and Media Matters’ broadcast analysis.

A strong 78 percent of Americans back government action to cut climate-disrupting carbon pollution, according to a January poll by the New York Times, Stanford University and Resources for the Future. But despite the overwhelming scientific evidence showing global warming is clearly manmade, already here and harming America, many citizens remain in the dark. Reticent--or outright ignorant--news coverage isn’t helping.

Some, like Todd, may think they’re avoiding politicization of the issue. But by not covering climate change or its causes, they’re giving a free pass to the huge industrial polluters who are profiting off their ability to dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into our atmosphere free of charge.

If reporters feel uncertain about discussing climate science, the solution isn’t to shy away--it’s to get help talking about it. The Society of Environmental Journalism provides the helpful Climate Change: A Guide to the Information and Disinformation. The Poynter Institute provides 7 Tips for Covering Climate Change and an in-depth, online, self-directed course on Covering Climate Change.

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