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The Climate Is Changing. How Often Climate Is Covered On TV Networks? Not So Much.

Coverage is irregular but tends to bubble up around big news stories, like Trump pulling out of the Paris climate deal.

Posted on December 3, 2018, at 2:39 p.m. ET

Jes Aznar / Getty Images

For years, cable news networks have stumbled over how they cover climate change, like last week when CNN gave a platform to former Republican House majority leader Tom DeLay to rebuke, incorrectly, a recent accurate report.

But there’s another more patently obvious issue at play. Even as the scientific community’s understanding of the impact of climate change deepens, the topic — literally the biggest story on the planet — still receives relatively irregular coverage from the big cable TV networks, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.

TV data collected by liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America from tracking firm IQ Media on behalf of BuzzFeed News paints an at times dire picture of climate coverage across cable news over the past eight years. In some particularly quiet months, like June of 2012, there were only about 40 mentions across all three networks. In August of 2016, there were about 60.

Average cable news hits per day mentioning climate change. Source: Media Matters/IQ Media.
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Average cable news hits per day mentioning climate change. Source: Media Matters/IQ Media.

But unsurprisingly, when a climate-related story is in the news, mentions surge, like when President Trump announced the US would pull out of the Paris climate agreement. Last month, given the release of a bombshell new report on how climate change is already impacting the US economy (which President Trump said he doesn’t believe), there have been more than a thousand mentions across the networks.

Media Matters searched for the term “climate” within 10 words of “change,” “changing,” “warming,” “warmer,” “science,” “scientist,” “accord,” or “agreement”; “global” within 10 words of “warming” or “temperatures”; “globe” within 10 words of “warmer” or “warming”; planet within 10 words of “warm” or “warming”; or “Paris” within 10 words of “accord” or “agreement.” (A caveat: The IQ Media database is missing between 0.5%–1.9% of mentions, offering some gaps in the number of mentions from each network.)

But in general, the information shows that the amount of coverage bubbles up around climate-related news events, with Fox News overall less likely than CNN or MSNBC to mention the climate-related search terms.

Some individual shows across the cable news networks tend to focus on climate change more. Since Jan. 1, 2017, for example, MSNBC’s Morning Joe posted 134 days with a climate change hit, compared to 109 on Fox News’ Fox & Friends, according to the data.

The number of days various cable news shows have mentioned climate change since Jan. 1, 2017. Source: Media Matters/IQ Media.
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The number of days various cable news shows have mentioned climate change since Jan. 1, 2017. Source: Media Matters/IQ Media.

The data on how often the topic is mentioned does not reflect the quality of the coverage, of course — whether the mention was a quick aside, an accurate portrayal of the science, or simply a platform for climate change deniers.

Plus, the cable networks are far from unique in sometimes neglecting the climate change story. Many outlets — across the media spectrum in TV, print, and digital — have been criticized for not spending enough resources reporting on climate change. Outlets like the New York Times have in recent years staffed up their climate desks. BuzzFeed News has one reporter exclusively dedicated to the climate change story.

But climate change coverage also makes up a small portion of the overall online coverage from the big cable networks. This year, according to data from Media Cloud, a system developed by MIT and Harvard, the percentage of online coverage containing “climate change” or “global warming” for Fox, CNN, and MSNBC/NBC was 0.76%, 1.28%, and 0.81%, respectively. Fox averaged 1.66 stories per day mentioning the topic, while CNN averaged 2.48 stories, and MSNBC/NBC averaged 2.02.

Fox News declined to comment. CNN and MSNBC did not return a request for comment.

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