Corporate news networks long have viewed climate-change coverage as a ratings killer: complicated, depressing, and certain to provoke howls of protest from deniers, including the president of the United States.
A joint report from Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, published in April 2019, was headlined, “Media Are Complacent While the World Burns.” “At a time when civilization is accelerating toward disaster,” the authors wrote, “climate silence continues to reign across the bulk of the US news media. Especially on television, where most Americans still get their news, the brutal demands of ratings and money work against adequate coverage of the biggest story of our time.” A 2012 study by Media Matters for America showed that in an 18-month period, “news outlets gave 40 times more coverage to the Kardashians than to ocean acidification.”
Natural disasters, in contrast, receive saturation coverage from all media–but corporate news rarely links these rapidly unfolding, dramatic, life-or-death stories to climate change. A 2018 Columbia Journalism Review report noted that, too often, “fire stories that did reference climate change often did so in quotation marks,” leaving it for celebrities outspoken officials like then-California Governor Jerry Brown or celebrities, like rock star Neil Young, to assert the connection, a distancing move that plays into the “just your opinion, man” agenda of climate-change deniers. “This kind of attribution is not sufficiently authoritative,” Jon Allsop wrote in CJR’s 2018 report.
Deniers are routinely given equal time in climate-change stories, no matter how self-serving or nonsensical their arguments–the equivalent of giving equal time to the beliefs of, say, fire-worshippers or arsonists. Sometimes celebrity or public office gives the denier his bully pulpit: President Trump, for example, erroneously blamed the California fires on forest mismanagement by state officials, a meritless claim that nevertheless was widely reported and believed.
Since then, apocalyptic wildfires in Australia and the COVID-19 pandemic have received their own saturation coverage, but expert assessments of the extent to which climate change contributed to either is largely kept out of public discourse by corporate news media.
Editor’s Note: For some of Project Censored’s previous coverage on corporate news media failures to adequately report on climate change, see Corporate News Ignores Connections Between Extreme Weather and Global Warming, story #8 from Censored 2015: Inspiring We The People; Understanding Climate Change and Gender Inequality, story #15 from Censored 2017: Fortieth Anniversary Edition; and Young Plaintiffs Invoke Constitutional Grounds for Climate Protection, story #17 in Censored 2018: Press Freedoms in a ‘Post-Truth’ World.
Source: Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope, “The Media Are Complacent While the World Burns,” Columbia Journalism Review, April 22, 2019, https://www.cjr.org/special_report/climate-change-media.php.
Student Researcher: Nadia Williams (Frostburg State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Andy Duncan (Frostburg State University)