The US media and climate change

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The United States has been experiencing an unprecedented series of extreme weather events. Recently, Hurricane Ida ripped through the northeast, killing almost 60 people, and destroying thousands of homes. In February 2021, a historic snowstorm in Texas left millions without power. Over August, a long-term drought in the West culminated in raging wildfires.

There is a clear cause to these natural disasters: climate change is making them more prevalent, as well as worsening their effects – to the point where they can arguably no longer be considered ‘natural’. Climate scientists agree that as higher temperatures cause higher levels of rainfall, the intensity of a storm such as Ida grows. A hotter planet also causes an increase in the number of droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires, such as those seen in the American West this summer. Every region on Earth is already being affected, a situation which will only be amplified in the coming years.

It is not a difficult step to tie these events to climate change: the science supporting this relationship is largely unrefuted. However, despite the inextricable link, the US television media seemingly remains reluctant to connect the storms, heatwaves, and snowstorms that they cover to their cause. A recent analysis by watchdog group Media Matters found that of 774 TV news stories covering Hurricane Ida on TV news over 27-30th August, only 34 mentioned climate change.

Mark Hertsgaard, writing for The Guardian, labelled this as media malpractice: he argues that failing to convey why these events are happening, as well as their increased likelihood in the future, constitutes misinformation. Television journalism is the leading news source for 45% of Americans, yet is arguably failing to convey the full picture.

The US television media seemingly remains reluctant to connect the storms, heatwaves, and snowstorms that they cover to their cause

The purpose of news media is to communicate information to its audience: without illustrating how such extreme weather events are becoming a greater threat, viewers are unable to adequately understand or prepare for them. Certain outlets have improved their climate change coverage over the last few years: MSNBC, for example, has recently announced that they are creating a dedicated force to cover this issue.

However, the most watched news network in the US is Fox News. A 2019 study from Public Citizen found that 86% of Fox News segments were “dismissive of the climate crisis, cast its consequences in doubt or employed fear mongering when discussing climate solutions”.

The same study stated that Fox News was airing contrarians to present alternative theories on climate change, thus giving a voice to deniers of respected science, many of whom have connections to the fossil fuel industry. This often makes the conversation into a debate about the reality of climate change; a stage which we should surely be far past as we face its consequences.

A 2019 study from Public Citizen found that 86% of Fox News segments were “dismissive of the climate crisis, cast its consequences in doubt or employed fear mongering when discussing climate solutions”

If climate change is addressed by the media, the way in which this is done is important. Network TV often seems to cover the Green New Deal in terms of how it would affect Democratic prospects; the effect that it would have on fighting the climate crisis is largely left unsaid.

This technique, known as ‘tactical framing’, covers the perception of a policy rather than its benefits, hinting to the audience that its implementation is unlikely. Leaving audiences uninformed about solutions to climate change by focusing on the costs and impracticality of the policy fuels the ‘doom and gloom’ angle that can eclipse the impact of climate change journalism. Covering the solutions, in addition to how the problem arose, has the potential to engage audiences to a greater extent.

The US, as the largest producer of both oil and natural gas, as well as the subject of such increasingly varied and intense extreme weather events, surely holds a responsibility to inform its public of the ongoing threat from climate change. It must therefore be directly addressed when relevant, rather than ignored in favour of an outdated narrative, and be told for what it is – a threat that must be managed, now. Beyond meteorological fact, the problem at the root deserves airtime.

Image: VaDOT via Creative Commons

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