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The Media’s Failure to Connect the Dots on Climate Change

Why are some major news outlets still covering extreme weather like it's an act of God?

Wildfires burn the Greek town of Rafina on July 23. (Angelos Tzortzinis AFP/Getty)

A record-breaking heat wave killed 65 people in Japan this week, just weeks after record flooding there killed more than 200. Record-breaking heat is also wreaking havoc in California, where the wildfire season is already worse than usual. In Greece, fast-moving fires have killed at least 80 people, and Sweden is struggling to contain more than 50 fires amid its worst drought in 74 years. Both countries have experienced all-time record-breaking temperatures this summer, as has most of the rest of the world.

Is this climate change, or merely Mother Nature? The science is clear: Heat-trapping greenhouse gases have artificially increased the average temperature across the globe, making extreme heat events more likely. This has also increased the risk of frequent and more devastating wildfires, as prolonged heat dries soil and turns vegetation into tinder.

And yet, despite these facts, there’s no climate connection to be found in much news coverage of extreme weather events across the globe—even in historically climate-conscious outlets like NPR and The New York Times. These omissions, critics say, can affect how Americans view global warming and its impact on their lives.

Major broadcast TV networks are the most glaring offenders. Media Matters reviewed 127 segments on the global heat wave that aired on ABC, CBS, and NBC this summer, and found that only one, on CBS This Morning, mentioned the connection between climate change and extreme heat. This fits a long-running pattern. As Media Matters noted, its latest annual study of broadcast coverage found that “during the height of hurricane season in 2017, neither ABC nor NBC aired a single segment on their morning, evening, or Sunday news shows that mentioned the link between climate change and hurricanes.”

Legacy print and radio news outlets are generally much better at connecting these dots. In the last five years, the Times, NPR, and The Washington Post have built large teams of reporters dedicated to explaining climate science, dissecting climate policy, and showing how global warming affects communities. But when covering extreme weather across the globe, the outlets don’t often include references to climate change.

An NPR story on Tuesday, for instance, noted that wildfires are “not unusual during Greece’s hot, dry summers,” but added that the blazes “spread so quickly that they seemed to catch everyone off guard.” The story did not mention climate change’s role in droughts and wildfires, or that Greece is currently experiencing its hottest year on record.

There were similar exclusions in other extreme-weather coverage on NPR this month: A July 10 story on Santa Barbara wildfires said fast-spreading blazes were “part of a ‘new normal.’” A July 8 story on Oregon’s drought quoted a rancher saying, “This is not normal for what we normally have here.” A July 7 story on wildfires noted the role of “Record-breaking heat.” None mentioned climate change, though—an omission that drew some criticism on Twitter.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR’s science editor, vigorously defended the public radio network’s climate coverage. “We’re actively working on a story, trying to see what scientists think all of these events,” he told me on Tuesday. “You don’t just want to be throwing around, ‘This is due to climate change, that is due to climate change.’” I suggested that journalists don’t need to determine whether an event was caused by climate change to make a climate connection—a journalist could merely say climate change makes extreme events such as these more likely. “It’s an interesting question if there should be boilerplate language [in extreme weather stories],” Brumfiel replied.

But for now, he said, NPR reporters must interview climate scientists before referencing the phenomenon, which is often not possible with breaking news. “You’re looking at the first-round reporting,” he said, noting that general assignment reporters or regional reporters—not science reporters—are usually the ones covering breaking weather events. “We don’t assume everything that happens is climate change, and you can make statements, but we take our reporting duties seriously.” (NPR certainly does take its climate reporting seriously; the network has five full-time climate and environment reporters, as well as a dozen member station reporters and two editors covering the subject.)

Other legacy outlets appear to be reconsidering how they cover extreme weather. Like NPR, The New York Times also published a story Greece’s wildfires on Tuesday that didn’t mention climate change. Hours later, a section was added by Times climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis that read: “The extreme conditions are in line with patterns that scientists attribute to climate change.”

The section was added after the story was criticized on Twitter, but Pierre-Louis said it was already in the works. “I noticed it and the international desk was receptive to making the changes,” she said, noting that—like NPR—it’s not always the climate reporters who are covering the weather stories. Adding references to climate change, she said, is probably “still not obvious to people who don’t have climate change on their mind, but we’re working on it!”

Five years ago, the biggest problem with news coverage of climate change used to be that no one was covering it at all. Now, the problem is that it’s seen as a niche issue. “I think climate change is still put in a silo,” said Lisa Hymas, the climate and energy program director at Media Matters. “Some outlets recognize this is an important thing, and so they have someone covering climate, but they’re not viewing it as a massive phenomenon that affects major parts of the economy, or weather as it happens every day.”

There may also be business incentives for not covering climate change more aggressively on broadcast news, as MSNBC host Chris Hayes explained to freelance writer Elon Green. (The entire thread is worth a read.)

Rafi Letzter, a staff writer at LiveScience, echoed Hayes’s observation.

There are consequences to siloing climate coverage, Hymas said. “The media’s failure to connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather happening now in the U.S. is a key part of why Americans don’t perceive climate change to be a major, priority issue,” she said. “A lot of people, even Americans who accept climate science, still believe climate change is something that happens far away, either in the future or in another country.”

Indeed, though the issue is rising in priority for many young and Hispanic voters, polling experts still don’t think the issue will be an important factor in the November midterm elections. Addressing the crisis will require getting more people to care about it in the first place. The scientific community is doing its part by providing the evidence that climate change is real, and that it’s making extreme storms, droughts, wildfires and other weather more likely. It’s up to journalists to convey those truths to public at large.