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TV News and Extreme Weather: Don't Mention Climate Change

Chart: Network Nightly News Reports on Extreme Weather
(Source: Fair)
By Peter Hart

Television news thrives on drama. Stories that can blend danger and dramatic footage are much more likely to be considered “newsworthy.”

So it’s no surprise that extreme weather plays a major role in the network evening news broadcasts. “As we come on the air this Friday night, millions of people are trying to drive home on sheets of ice,” ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer (2/22/13) announced at the beginning of one broadcast. But for the TV networks, weather events are most often discussed in isolation: A new FAIR study shows that even when  covering weather events that scientists suggest are linked to climate change, the news rarely mentions the changing climate.

FAIR looked at transcripts from the first nine months of 2013 of the CBS Evening News, ABC World News and NBC Nightly News, scrutinizing all reports over 200 words that discussed extreme weather events like hurricanes, drought, wildfires, floods and heat waves.

Of course, some weather events that are important enough to make the national news do not necessarily call for a discussion of human-caused global warming. While all weather today is a product of climate change—if people hadn’t altered the climate, we would inevitably be getting a different set of weather events—most meteorological phenomena are of the sort that you would expect to find in an unaltered world. Tornadoes would still hit Kansas and Florida would have hurricanes even if no fossil fuels had ever been burned.

But much of the weather covered on the nightly news is depicted as highly unusual: record breaking rainfall or heat waves, storms of unprecedented ferocity and so on. As NBC’s Brian Williams (1/28/13) introduced one segment: “Going to extremes—weather whiplash across a huge part of our country.” Such aberrations call out for explanations—and climate scientists say that they are the kinds of events one can expect to encounter with increasing frequency in an ever-warming world.

2013 was an active weather year in the United States: A massive tornado in Oklahoma, deadly flooding in Colorado, a string of major wildfires across several Western states and bouts of unseasonable temperatures across the country.

That produced 450 segments about extreme weather—just 16 of which even mentioned climate change. In other words, 96 percent of extreme weather stories never discussed the human impact on the climate.

On the CBS Evening News, FAIR counted 114 reports about extreme weather. Only two of those reports mentioned the terms “greenhouse gases,” “climate change” or “global warming.” In a segment about flooding (5/2/13), the mayor of Fargo, North Dakota, commented: “Is it climate change? I really don’t know.” That was that story’s entire discussion of human-made climate change. 

On ABC World News, eight reports mentioned climate change. Though that figure represents only 4 percent of the newscast’s 200 segments about extreme weather, ABC was somewhat more direct when it did attribute weather outcomes to climate factors. On a June 20 report on the unusually active fire season, correspondent Clayton Sandell noted: “Climate experts blame extreme drought and global temperatures running hotter than average every single month for 28 years straight.” Four days later, he made a similar point:

Scientists say human-caused climate change is already helping shift the planet’s natural balance, creating more heat waves, drought and intense downpours. A stormy and expensive reality that’s already on our doorsteps.

NBC Nightly News mentioned climate change six times in 136 reports on extreme weather. Two segments dealt with climate change in some detail—a January 8 segment about a new report on warming from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a September 27 report about the latest findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The other mentions were passing references, as when NBC correspondent John Yang (5/25/13) observed: “Why all this severe weather? Government scientists say it’s partly the result of man-made climate change.”

The extent to which current weather events should be linked to climate change is, of course, a matter of serious scientific debate. But as Scientific American (6/11/11) put it:

So are the floods and spate of other recent extreme events also examples of predictions turned into cold, hard reality? Increasingly, the answer is yes. Scientists used to say, cautiously, that extreme weather events were “consistent” with the predictions of climate change. No more.

As Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research wrote (Climatic Change, 3/21/12):

The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.

It’s unrealistic to expect that TV newscasts would find a way to mention climate change or a warming planet in every significant story about extreme weather. But you’re unlikely to ever bring up global warming if you don’t think that it’s real; CBS Evening News’ go-to “expert” on extreme weather in David Bernard, a meteorologist at a Florida CBS affiliate who also happens to be a climate change denier (FAIR Action Alert, 7/20/12).

During the study period, one of the most substantive reports on the CBS newscast regarding climate change—one that did not reference extreme weather—was a September 26 report built around the bogus notion of a supposed “pause” in global warming (FAIR Blog, 10/1/13).

If news reports are failing to consistently discuss climate change in the context of extreme weather, that’s not to say the public does not make such links. Polling from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (4/20/13) has shown that a majority of the American public sees a link between extreme weather and climate change. More reporting that connected these dots could bolster public support for policies to address climate change.

“Our climate is in the news tonight,” NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (1/8/13) announced at the opening of a segment about a new scientific report on warming. But our study demonstrates that when weather is the news, the climate is seldom mentioned. It’s almost as if the climate and the weather were happening on two different planets.

Reprinted with permission from Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting.

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