The Media Fails on Climate Change

Why are Americans at one and the same time concerned about climate change but uninformed about it–enough so that it is not a high priority?  One reason, reported by The Guardian March 27 based on a study by Media Matters for America, is that the mainstream media devote extraordinarily little attention to climate change. Consider the chart below: “total coverage” refers to minutes for all of 2015 and 2016, years when new heat records were set, the Paris Accord was signed, and, of course, an election was held.  As we’re all aware, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump said barely a word about climate change during their campaigns, including the debates. (Bernie Sanders did!) And the media neither led nor followed them.

PBS deserves kudos for devoting far more time to climate change than all the others combined. So does The Guardian. (Note that Fox doesn’t even make the list.) Here’s the chart:

The mainstream media’s failure is one point of the story.  The other is that the Trump administration’s evident plan to stop funding public television will mean silencing a critical source of news on climate change.



  1. Mel, I think your account is provocative but somewhat misleading. If you read the original report issued by Media Matters (and not the Guardian’s capsule version) the takeaways are far more equivocal. Here’s what I came away with:

    * The original report covers the time period 2009-2016 NOT JUST the one year period 2015-2016.
    * Looking at the full time period, the swings from year to year are very sharp. Indeed, if you compared 2015-2016 vs. 2009-2010 you would have to say: the more recent decline paled in comparison with the decline during the earlier time period. All said, generalizing from single year changes provides a somewhat misleading picture of trends.
    * The media covered in the report include only CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox TV. They do not cover print, social media, digital, and other news sources that are capturing an increasing share of attention. It would be important to look at trends in climate reporting in those channels.

    So while I don’t for a moment discount the importance of the single year change in network broadcast coverage, I think you would have to agree a more inclusive context would be more informative and who knows, it might even suggest a different story.

  2. Yes, “The Media Fails on Climate Change,” especially the electronic media, which is fixated on “Breaking News” and cute puppy trivia to dilute distressing news. Note that, during the presidential debates, not a single question about climate change was ever addressed to any of the candidates. Shameful. Unprofessional, to say the least.
    But there is more to this story. First, climate change is not a top issue for most voters, usually ranking in the bottom half of the top ten concerns, in part because it is a long-term issue, easily postponed. Second, the “voice” of those concerned with climate, the energy transition, global issues, and the broader and little-known concept of planetary boundaries is severely fragmented among many hundreds of groups without the financial clout of big gas and oil and the infamous and unpatriotic Koch brothers. Thirdly, there is far too little framing of climate issues in economic terms that appeal to voters: more and better jobs from climate-related investments, lower costs by taking action sooner (as argued, notably, by Sir Nicolas Stern), and better health, safety, and well-being for people. Increasingly, as noted by seasoned military leaders (e.g. the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Panel), climate change should be framed as a threat multiplier and a national security issue to counter narrow definitions overly focused on terrorism. Let’s get with it!

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