clock menu more-arrow no yes

Climate coverage on TV is rising. That's not always a good thing.

NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw (left) and CBS anchor Dan Rather listen Governor Howard Dean address the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts on July 27, 2004.
NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw (left) and CBS anchor Dan Rather listen Governor Howard Dean address the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts on July 27, 2004.
(Andy Nelson/Getty Images)

People who care about climate change are always lamenting the fact that newspapers and major TV networks barely cover the subject. But that's lately started to change — for better or worse.

Coverage of global warming on the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox) has been steadily increasing over the last five years, according to a recent tally from Media Matters:

(Media Matters for America)

In 2014, the networks devoted 154 minutes to the subject. That's more than the year prior, though it's still well below 2009 levels. The leaders were CBS and NBC, with 56 and 47 minutes respectively. Fox had the least coverage, with 19 minutes — largely because it doesn't have a nightly news program.

About 22 million people in America still watch the evening news on ABC, NBC, or CBS, so this is a fairly big media source, though obviously the networks don't have anywhere near the vast reach they once did.

Why climate coverage is on the rise

So what's behind the recent uptick? A separate recent survey from The Daily Climate, looking at a similar increase in newspaper coverage, suggested it was mostly event-driven. President Obama has been talking about climate change more in recent years — which in turn drives headlines and news coverage.

There were also a lot of huge climate-related stories in 2014: new EPA regulations on coal, the US-China deal on greenhouse-gas emissions, the UN climate talks at Lima. Coverage of fracking has also been expanding — and fracking has lots of climate implications:

(The Center for Science and Technology Policy Research)

There were similar news coverage upticks in 2006-'07 when Al Gore was speaking out about climate change a lot. And there was another spike in 2009, when Congress was considering a big cap-and-trade bill and there were major UN talks at Copenhagen. High-profile politicians and events are always good for driving coverage.

More TV coverage isn't always a good thing

Granted, as the Media Matters report points out, not all network TV coverage is great coverage. Oftentimes a fair bit of nonsense can appear on the Sunday talk shows:

On its February 16 show, Fox News Sunday hosted a panel discussion comprised of frequent climate misinformer George Will and others dismissing the scientific consensus on climate change.

During the segment, Will said that he doesn't "buy" the president's focus on global warming because "the climate is always changing," and Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel argued that the term "global warming" became "climate change" because "you couldn't prove that there was much global warming anymore... as the temperature didn't change."

Media Matters laments the fact that only 16 percent of the guests quoted on these shows were scientists. That's worth qualifying, though: Scientists definitely shouldn't be the only people quoted in climate coverage. After all, global warming — and how to deal with it — is a topic that encompasses politics, economics, energy issues, and so on. Very often, scientists simply aren't the best sources on these topics, and "science" can't settle questions on, for instance, how we might want to reconfigure our energy system.

That said, if you are having a segment on whether global average temperatures are on the rise or not, it wouldn't hurt to ask a climate scientist.

Further reading: You can see more details on network coverage from Media Matters here, and more details on newspaper coverage from The Daily Climate here.