The Media Today

Feeling the heat

July 26, 2019

Last week, a heat wave baked swathes of the United States. Temperatures soared in the Midwest and on the East Coast; in New York City, the heat index pushed 110 degrees. Yesterday, it was Europe’s turn. Heat records were broken in several countries. It was 108.7 degrees in Paris and in Lingen, in Germany. Belgium had temperatures topping 105 degrees; so did the Netherlands, breaking a national record that had been set the day before. Public-health officials in several countries warned that lives were at risk; some advised residents not to go outside. In the UK, more than 100 flights were canceled because of heat and thunderstorms, and rail services were severely disrupted. The misery, if temporary, is a striking reminder that as the climate crisis intensifies, extreme heat and its consequences will become more common.

There’s a clear scientific link between climate change and intensifying heat waves, yet it’s been communicated in coverage with insufficient urgency. According to an analysis by Ted MacDonald, of Media Matters for America, during the US heat wave, some outlets “included context about how climate change is a driver of extreme heat, but not nearly enough, and too many of those that did mention climate change fell short of communicating the scale of the crisis facing us.” CBS News repeatedly referred to climate change and invited experts to talk about it on the air. On other networks, however, climate mentions were fleeting, at best; per MacDonald, NBC News did not reference it once. Major papers in cities affected by the heat wave—Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City—didn’t make the connection explicit, either.

Related: A new commitment to covering the climate story

Coverage of the European heat wave was a similarly mixed picture. Major outlets—including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN—failed to reference climate change in their lead headlines. In the UK, several newspapers’ headlines mentioned climate fears, but many others focused instead on the public transit problems caused by the heat; the left-wing Daily Mirror covered skirmishes over access to an outdoor swimming pool. Two days ago, the BBC ran a terrifying report asserting that we have only 18 months to save the planet; today, its top article on the heat wave is about train cancelations, with not one sentence mentioning the climate link—demonstrating nothing except that the trains are crap and it was hot. The Sun, Britain’s most-read tabloid, made a joke of the heat: its front page bears the face of Boris Johnson, Britain’s new prime minister, on a cartoon sun with the caption “JOHNSUN: New PM promises a ‘golden age.’”

In recent years, reporters and editors have hesitated to tie extreme weather events to climate change. Their caution is understandable: especially in breaking-news coverage, it’s hard to say with certainty that an individual hurricane or forest fire is a product of climate disaster. It’s easier to situate environmental stories in terms of intensity and frequency, and yet, too often, news outlets have not done that, either. In October—days after the United Nations published a dire climate report—CJR noted that major US newspapers did not mention climate change in their coverage of Hurricane Michael, which devastated the Florida panhandle. The following month, I found coverage of deadly wildfires in California to be similarly lacking in context.

Clearly, improvement is needed. To that end, CJR and The Nation, in partnership with The Guardian, launched Covering Climate Now, which aims to prompt conversations about how we might do justice to the climate story. This morning, CJR’s Kyle Pope and The Nation’s Mark Hertsgaard write that more than 60 outlets—including CBS News, the San Francisco Chronicle, Scientific American, Italy’s la Repubblica, and Vox—have signed on, making a commitment to run a week of climate-focused coverage between September 16 and 23.

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“All that’s required is for each outlet to make a good faith effort to increase the amount and the visibility of its climate coverage—to make it clear to their audiences that climate change is not just one more story but the overriding story of our time,” Pope and Hertsgaard write. If your newsroom or favorite outlet isn’t involved yet, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

Below, more on heat and climate change:

Other notable stories:

  • Following Trump’s “Send her back” rally in North Carolina, Dan Le Batard, a radio and TV host on ESPN, publicly criticized his network’s policy barring its journalists from talking about politics. This week, Le Batard skipped two of his shows as speculation mounted about his future; yesterday, following talks with Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN’s president, it emerged that Le Batard will stay on after all. In The Atlantic, Jemele Hill, who left ESPN after her own political remarks caused controversy, calls the network’s policy “unreasonable—and ultimately untenable.” For The New Yorker, Louisa Thomas writes that ESPN’s “decision to silence or restrict the commentary of commentators is an inherently political decision—an attempt to avoid a certain kind of controversy.”
  • Last week, Julie Bosman wrote for the Times about the impending auction of the combined photo archive of Ebony and Jet magazines; experts warned that “the most significant collection of photographs depicting African-American life in the 20th century” could be acquired, then hidden away, by a private owner. Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, read Bosman’s article and contacted the heads of three other major foundations; on Wednesday, the group bought the archive for $30 million. “They agreed to donate the archive to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute so that it would be widely accessible to researchers, scholars and the public,” Bosman wrote yesterday.
  • In May, Chris Hughes, who helped Mark Zuckerberg found Facebook, wrote a 6,000-word op-ed for the Times arguing that regulators should move to dismantle the company. Now Hughes—along with academics Scott Hemphill and Tim Wu—is helping the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department, and state officials map an antitrust case against Facebook, Steve Lohr writes for the Times. (After Hughes—who sold his stake in Facebook for $500 million—published his op-ed, CJR’s Mathew Ingram wrote of the logic: “I regret my role at Facebook, but I’m keeping the money.”)
  • Amid rising tensions between the US and Iran, the Trump administration is aiming an aggressive information campaign at the Iranian public. The Wall Street Journal’s Sune Engel Rasmussen and Michael Amon report that the US government has boosted anti-regime hashtags on Twitter and weaponized Persian-language social media, amid other efforts, in an attempt to discredit Iran’s rulers.
  • Yesterday, the House Oversight and Reform Committee voted to authorize subpoenas for messages sent by senior White House officials—including Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and Steve Bannon—using a private email address or messaging app. Committee Republicans opposed the subpoena, but lawmakers from both parties have long expressed concerns about potential violations of the Presidential Records Act, which is supposed to ensure that government communications are archived as public records.
  • In Philadelphia, 24 academics wrote to The Philadelphia Inquirer criticizing the paper’s “fear-driven” recent coverage of shootings in the city. Their letter says: “Rather than honestly reporting on gun violence and its causes and solutions, this string of stories is rife with misleading claims that risk stoking unfounded fear over criminal justice reform.” Brian Hickey has more details for PhillyVoice.
  • For Elle, Molly Langmuir profiles Jia Tolentino, of The New Yorker. “What can seem contradictory is that while her writing is obviously informed by a searing intelligence, when she appears in it, it’s often as a blank-brained stoner speaking in slang,” Langmuir writes of Tolentino. “Similarly, she writes extensively about her own capacity for delusion, but comes across as unusually undeluded.”
  • Following four months of talks, management at Vice UK agreed to recognize a staff union with Britain’s National Union of Journalists. The company previously stanched unionization efforts, but staffers decided to try again earlier this year, after Vice moved to cut 10 percent of its global workforce. Press Gazette’s James Walker has more.
  • And officials in Reno, Nevada, voted to acquire the newsroom of the Reno Gazette Journal as a new home for the city’s police department. Brian Duggan, the paper’s editor, says it will move to offices that “better suit our news organization’s digital future.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.