Last week, Public Citizen released its annual review of how well the media did connecting extreme weather to climate coverage. We found that the media still are underreporting the impacts of our rapidly warming world and at the very least, coverage is not on scale with the magnitude of the crisis.
But even as media as a whole underperformed on climate reporting this past year, there was a number of remarkable moments that played out in 2018 that provide hope and models for climate coverage in the year ahead.
1. South Florida Media Join Forces to Fight Back the Invading Sea
In May 2018, the editorial boards of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media announced an unprecedented collaboration “to raise awareness about the threat facing South Florida from sea-level rise.” Their commitment to their readership was to, “in drumbeat fashion, inform, engage, provoke and build momentum” to address climate impacts in Florida.
The Invading Sea project is the first of its kind and a model for other local media on educating and activating local communities on climate change.
2. Blowback to “Climate is a Ratings-Killer” Claim
On July 24, MSNBC host Chris Hayes, in response to a tweet calling out news networks failure to connect climate and extreme weather events, tweeted that climate change is a “palpable ratings killer” for news shows. The comment ignited a flurry of retorts and challenges to the claim, including from climate journalist Eric Holthaus, who pointed out that a climate piece he wrote for Rolling Stone “was the most-shared in its history.”
But more interesting than the question of “is it” or “isn’t it” was the fact that Hayes’ tweet pushed a necessary discussion around the media’s coverage of climate into the Twittersphere – where many reporters and communicators roam. The prevailing takeaway and challenge to networks (and reporters) that shy away from climate appeared to be this: Climate is the story of our time. If you think the public doesn’t want to hear it, you’re just not telling it right.
3. New York Times Magazine Dedicates Entire Issue to Climate Change
On July 30, The New York Times Magazine’s Twitter handle teased out this message, “On August 1, our entire magazine will contain one single story: Thirty years ago we had a chance to save the planet. We could have fixed climate change. We failed to act.”
The next day, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” went live and the internet went into a frenzy. Thousands of comments and responses immediately began circulating across social media platforms. Within the first two days of the story’s release, 800 people left their thoughts directly in The New York Times Magazine comment section.
Regardless of whether the response was critique or praise (and there was plenty of both), the bottom line is that one of the most influential national news outlets, for one day, made a huge commitment to one story: climate change. By doing so, it asked its readers to do the same.
We are not calling on every news outlet to tell only one story. We just are asking them to cover climate consistently and with the frequency and depth the crisis demands.
4. BBC: Pledges to Cover Climate Every Week
In late September, BBC editor Jo Floto announced that the network’s flagship programs, The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 and Newshour on BBC World Service, would begin covering climate change every week.
More than just making a case for why it’s important to consistently cover climate, Floto gave insight into why well-meaning news outlets often give climate short shrift:
If this is true, then the prescription for underreporting the most significant issue of our time is for outlets to do exact what the BBC is doing: be deliberate, generating at least one dose of climate news every week.
5. Climate First in Florida Gubernatorial Debate
CNN’s Jake Tapper opened the October 21 debate between gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis with this question: “Given the threats Florida faces from intense hurricanes and rising sea levels, don’t Florida voters deserve to know where you stand on climate change?”
As Media Matters has documented, climate change is notoriously left out of political debates. But more and more, the impacts of climate, especially in states like Florida, not only cannot be ignored, but also are permeating other issues that typically take center stage in debates: health care, the economy and security.
Going forward, every candidate — in fact, every elected official — should be asked publicly not just where they stand on climate change, but what they are going to do to protect their community, state or country from climate chaos.
6. Climate Finally Gets the Media Attention it Deserves — Even if for the Wrong Reasons
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the Trump administration attempted to quietly release a staggering report on the state of our climate, the National Climate Assessment (NCA), which in essence confirmed that climate change is here, it’s expensive and it’s deadly.
The attempt to bury the report by releasing it when most people were either still in a tryptophan coma or busting down store doors backfired. Trump’s stunt was so transparent that the media lingered much longer over the report than they would have otherwise.
And though much ink and air time was dedicated to the timing (politics) of the report, the gravity of the report’s findings (science) still managed to occupy a place in the national spotlight well into the following week.
When Trump talks about climate, climate makes headlines. Unfortunately, what Trump has to say about climate is always wrong. The impacts of climate stand alone as a story – and climate scientists and experts should be the ones driving the story.
7. Meet the Press Pledges: No More Climate Deniers
Other stories generated by the release of the NCA went further.
A handful critiqued the media coverage of the climate report, which was the product of hundreds of scientists within a consortium of 13 federal agencies including the Department of Defense, the EPA and NASA.
In short, coverage was a mixed bag. On one hand, the NCA garnered extensive coverage from print and broadcast media. On the other hand, some of the coverage featured well known and thoroughly debunked climate misinformation. Perhaps one of the worst offenders was NBC’s Meet the Press, which featured Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank supported by the Koch brothers.
The segment ran on November 25 and included Danielle Pletka falsely claiming that the world is actually cooling. The extensive criticism to Pletka’s appearance included a retort from ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd,
Five weeks later, Chuck Todd opened the Sunday morning program by saying,
In and of itself, it was notable that an influential Sunday morning show dedicated its entire hour to climate and was intentional about not including those who sow climate misinformation.
But perhaps even more significant is that this segment appears to have been a response to the criticism the show received for giving a platform to climate denial during its coverage of the NCA. The broadcast news model that prioritizes conflict and false balance over truth needs reconsideration. Chuck Todd articulated the new model perfectly: thorough coverage of climate communicated by experts, never deniers.
8,9 & 10. Media Critics and Even the Media Itself: Calling for More Climate Coverage
In October, the editor of The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel, wrote a column for The Washington Post titled, “Why isn’t the media covering climate change all day, every day?”
If you look for it, it seems a form of this question is being presented to and by the media with some frequency.
Here are three of my favorite examples from 2018:
In an article appearing in Current Affairs at the end of August, its editor, Nathan J. Robinson, uses the example of The New York Times’ front page to call out media’s “strange and indefensible” priorities. The page in question devotes more than half of the page to Michael Cohen’s guilty plea. Below the Cohen article — and with a significantly lower word count — appears a story about how the Trump administration’s rollback of pollution regulations could kill 1,400 people per year.
About this specific example he concludes, “Did the president engage in a sleazy and probably illicit payoff scheme to silence women he had slept with? Probably. But the president is also allowing polluters to kill children, and I know which story I think belongs at the top of the page.”
More broadly — and in the category of “hitting the nail on the top of the head,” Robinson laments, “Climate change, for instance, poses an existential threat to the human species and could lead to catastrophic suffering on a global scale. Significant action has to be taken immediately if we want to preserve a habitable planet. That seems like it should be at the top of the newspaper every single day!” Uh, yeah!
This story by media columnist, Margaret Sullivan appeared in The Washington Post in October: “The planet is on a fast path to destruction. The media must cover this like it’s the only story that matters.”
Sullivan hits all the right points: The public isn’t hearing enough about climate change; we need sustained coverage to stand a chance of maintaining a livable planet; the media is spending too much time chasing Trump; and the public is news-weary.
Her conclusion is spot on: “Just as the smartest minds in earth science have issued their warning, the best minds in media should be giving sustained attention to how to tell this most important story in a way that will creates change.”
But perhaps my favorite thing about this column on climate is that it appeared in the Style section. This is the last point: Climate news needs to appear beyond the science section.
In a segment appearing on MSNBC in November, anchor Katy Tur brought on climate scientist Michael Mann to speak to the increasingly costly wildfires and the increasingly shocking denial and inaction by the Trump administration. During the segment she also tied in an article in The New Yorker by Bill McKibben that assess the ways climate change is making less of the Earth’s surface habitable by humans. It is here that she appears to have her climate and media “Ah moment.” She says to Mann:
I thought, “Gosh, how pointless is my life? And how important are the decisions that I’m making on a day-to-day basis when people are not focused on climate change every day when it’s not leading every one of our newscasts?”
My first reaction was, “thannnnk you.” My second thought was, is this the first such article (of which there are thousands) that she has fully read and digested? Her response to McKibben’s article is very appropriate, but it does seem like she just discovered that climate change is an existential threat to our planet. For the first time. In November 2018.
It reminds me of an article by the brilliant Emily Adkin, who, blasted not only the networks for giving deniers airtime during the National Climate Assessment coverage, but the hosts who were wholly unprepared to push back on long debunked climate misinformation.
She hammers home the point that broadcast journalists MUST get up to speed on climate.
They can and they must. If they do, in addition to not letting lies go by unchallenged, we are likely to see more journalists “A-ha moments” — and more fierce and personal climate coverage.