Climate change is rarely covered in the mainstream press, but getting a hard number on just how often (and under what circumstances) the media broaches the unwieldy subject is difficult. There aren’t many organizations that track climate coverage, and the ones that do measure different mediums and locations, making comprehensive comparisons impossible.
In a study released earlier this month, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a progressive media oversight organization, tried to quantify how one branch of media, prime-time network news stations, talk about climate change. FAIR pulled transcripts for CBS Evening News, ABC World News, and NBC Nightly News, covering the first nine months of 2013 and scanned the documents for mentions of extreme weather events—words like “hurricane,” “drought,” “wildfires,” “floods,” and “heat waves”—and then checked how often “climate change” or “global warming” were paired with the reports. FAIR isn’t just measuring how often climate change comes up (though the study was described in The Huffington Post that way); the organization is advocating a specific, and controversial, way of communicating climate change—coupling talk of global warming with oft-covered extreme weather events.
Here’s the difficulty with that: Weather is made up of a complicated series of variables, and the science behind attributing a storm to climate change is shaky at best. Global warming works probabilistically, making it increasingly likely that storms happen, and when they do, that they are increasingly fierce. But the science isn’t there yet to tie any single storm to global warming, a subject FAIR tackled in a blog post this week titled “Attributing Weather Events to Climate Change is the Easy Part.” The post uses counter-factual language to argue that journalists should play fast and loose with attribution, writing that when reporters write that weather can’t be attributed to global warming “they’re presumably saying something more complicated-perhaps something like “it’s difficult to say whether a similar event could not have happened in the absence of climate change.” However there’s a vast array of intermediaries between “global warming changes the planet” and “global warming caused Typhoon Bopha,” the least of which is that the science just isn’t there to state the latter without speaking probabilistically. And with so many qualifiers and caveats, it’s difficult to get people fired up about the trickle-down effects of carbon emissions.
But the post raises a compelling question: If journalists don’t use big weather—perhaps the only time climate talk makes the mainstream news—to hit on climate change, then when exactly does the subject get discussed? FAIR cites a study from the Yale Center on Climate Communication showing that most Americans already tie weather to climate change; in a poll, 58 percent said “global warming is affecting weather in the United States.” Scientific studies and events like the release of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report provide ample opportunity for special interest publications to dig into the politics of climate change (http://cjr.org/the_observatory/ipcc_coverage.php), but general interest publications’ ability to write about global warming hinges on finding human narratives—the Nightly News is less likely to write about a study on glacier depletion than profile a family left destitute by storm surge flooding. FAIR argues that this is “unhelpful in terms of setting public policy, because it’s defining ‘cause’ in a way that makes it impossible to connect weather disasters to human activity.”
Regardless, their survey found—shocker—that, though newscasters cover weather often, they rarely make the climate change link. Between the three shows, FAIR found 450 segments on extreme weather, with only 16 broaching the climate change. (“In other words,” wrote FAIR, “96 percent of extreme weather stories never discussed the human impact on the climate.”) The CBS Evening News had 114 stories on extreme weather, talking about “greenhouse gases,” “climate change,” or “global warming” twice. ABC World News aired 200 segments on extreme weather; 4 percent of these, or eight stories, mentioned climate change. NBC Nightly News fared slightly better in FAIR’s metric, mentioning climate change in six of 136 reports on extreme weather and airing two detailed segments on climate change, including a report on a release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a segment on the IPCC report.
These statistics show what we might already expect: that network news doesn’t often cover climate change. But the solution is more complicated than attributing every hurricane to climate change—regardless of whether the research is there to back up claims. That also blurs the more thoughtful conversation that comes after big weather, once scientists have studied the event enough to determine what role climate change had in the event.
With Sandy, that moment happened almost a year later, in August of 2013, when researchers released a study tying sea-level rise—a direct effect of climate change—with increased flooding damage and more powerful storm surges. The nuanced particulars of climate change are a difficult message to convey, especially in breaking news updates. But if we’re going to understand the real fallout of global warming, journalists are going to have to rise to the occasion to make it fit.