The Power of the (TV) Producer: Make Climate Change Matter to People

, director of Climate & Energy | March 10, 2016, 10:11 am EST
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Is it fair to compare the broadcast media’s coverage of Donald Trump to its coverage of climate change? In this election year, coverage of this businessman/reality show host/presidential candidate is valued in the millions. In the summer months after he announced his candidacy (June-Sept), before a primary was even held, coverage of Mr. Trump’s campaign on the news totaled about 10 hours, 20 minutes. By contrast, climate change coverage for ALL of 2015 was 146 minutes.

It is no wonder that climate change never shows up in the top 10 lists of issues of most concern to voters.  To care about it, they have to hear about it, see it, touch it and feel it.  TV has the power to help us do that.

Media Matters latest report showed that the hottest year on record (2015) that ended with the first ever truly global climate agreement was marked by less broadcast media coverage than the previous year and failed to document health and economic consequences of rising global temperatures. Hawaii Congressman Schatz had and I had a similar reaction to this news.  He issued a statement saying,

In a year when nearly 200 countries around the world collectively recognized the threat of climate change and the United States made historic commitments to cut carbon pollution, major networks actually cut their media coverage of climate change. In 2015, the network Sunday shows devoted just 73 minutes to climate change, a ten percent decrease from the year before. What makes these findings even more troubling is the fact that with the little time devoted to climate change, these Sunday shows continued to mislead their audiences by including climate denial as part of the discussion. The facts are clear. Scientists, governments, and major corporations around the world have accepted the facts about climate change and are having real debates on solutions. In this consequential election year, it’s time for news broadcasters to do the same.

As I marvel at the Trump phenomenon, I can’t help but wonder whether the key to making progress on climate change (or not) doesn’t have something to do with how the news media covers it. TV producers used to argue that covering climate change was tough because it was all ‘projected’ impacts of melting polar ice caps typically described in dry, complicated scientific journal articles.   The only visuals were maps, charts and graphs.  Sadly, that is no longer the case.

While in Iceland for a family wedding last October, I took a tour of Jokulsarlon, getting up close and personal with a glacier and just missed seeing that deep blue piece of ice in the photo on the right break off of the glacier just one hour earlier. Photo: Mark Anderson

While in Iceland for a family wedding last October, I took a tour of Jokulsarlon, getting up close and personal with a glacier and just missed seeing that deep blue piece of ice in the photo on the right break off of the glacier just one hour earlier. Photo: Mark Anderson

Last year I visited Iceland and saw glaciers melting before my eyes. We visited Jökulsárlón, (translated literally “glacial river lagoon,”) on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. I tasted thousand year old ice and saw the many hues of ice blue as sunlight turned it white and even translucent. I saw ice sculptures, created by the calved glacier’s movement through the bay and ultimately into the ocean, unless waylaid by surf to the black sand beaches. Our guide reported that local scientists predict the entire glacier will be gone by the end of this century.

Caption: As the ice moves from the lagoon to the North Atlantic, what drifts back onto the beach resembles sculpture. Photo: Mark Anderson

Caption: As the ice moves from the lagoon to the North Atlantic, what drifts back onto the beach resembles sculpture. Photo: Mark Anderson

Compelling pictures and human stories of the real life consequences of climate change are all too easy to come by today. The Equation feature series about communities on the front lines of climate change showcases just a few. People in those communities can bear witness to the health implications of climate change and the fossil energy pollution that causes it. Yet Media Matters found that the major broadcast news networks only focused on the connection between climate change and health five times all year.

Waterfront construction continues in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, though the road in front of this new building is often impassable during high tides. Photo: Audrey Peterman

Waterfront construction continues in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, though the road in front of this new building is often impassable during high tides. Photo: Audrey Peterman

The Clean Power Plan (CPP), designed to reduce the emissions from those polluting power plants, can (in Trump speak) make cities and states great again! Yet this life-saving law was barely mentioned on the evening news. UCS analysis indicates states are well on their way toward a low carbon future—a future with potential economic and health benefits in the millions and billions.

In Virginia, the CPP emissions limits would yield health and economic benefits worth an estimated $2.6 billion cumulatively through 2030 from the avoided carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide pollution. Similarly in Pennsylvania, benefits worth an estimated $4.5 billion could be expected. In Illinois, the CPP could provide health and economic benefits by decreasing carbon and other pollutants, worth some $14.3 billion cumulatively through 2030. CPP driven emissions reductions in Minnesota would provide some $111 million in public health and economic benefits between 2022 and 2030.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, stranded residents of Jefferson Parish, including young children and seniors, are brought to an elevated bridge by boat to await transportation by truck to an evacuation staging area. Photo: FEMA

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, stranded residents of Jefferson Parish, including young children and seniors, are brought to an elevated bridge by boat to await transportation by truck to an evacuation staging area. Photo: FEMA

It seems that neither good news nor bad news related to climate change can rival the horserace of this year’s crazy election season. But it does seem like it is important to more clearly put the faces of climate change before the American people—be it farmers and ranchers struck by drought; coastal communities facing rising seas; wildfires threatening neighborhoods and national landmarks; and communities on the fenceline of polluting facilities.

The networks are missing out on the powerful stories of how climate change is creating both winners and losers in towns and cities across America and the globe.  But it could be that those stories aren’t yet dramatic enough to make the news.

MauiTime, an online news outlet, mocked Congressman Schatz’ reaction to the Media Matters report with an analysis that brings me back to my opening question: is there a basis for comparing coverage of Trump and coverage of climate change? Here’s their analysis:

Trump dominates the news because he says and does outrageous, horrific things. And climate change gets the shaft because it’s based on scientific hypotheses and analyses that frighten TV news execs worse than any horror movie. Now in 50 years, when climate change has led to vastly more superstorms and rising sea levels that have lay waste to the world’s coastlines and caused devastating food shortages and chaos, then maybe climate change will start playing a bigger role in TV news.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science Communication

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  • Harshan Radhakrishnan

    No comments?! No wonder TV doesn’t find climate change news worthy. When an article as sobering as this hasn’t gathered any attention, you wonder what will wake people up. Keep up the good work and continue the advocacy!

    • solodoctor

      I am a frequent reader of The Equation but I must admit that I did not even notice this article until today…..12 days after it was posted! I guess my seeming lack of attention is symptomatic of what the article notes: that people are not attending to this issue as much as UCS, and even myself, would prefer.

      How can UCS and its members get more of us engaged with climate change?!?

  • Rick Kramer

    No, the public has heard enough about the phony alarmism for years and years and now it bores them, and rightfully so. Just too many “it is real and it is worse than we thought” diatribes. Many media outlets have been told to stop the hype from their readers/viewers. Maybe UCS should listen. People are beginning to realize that there is no legitimate science supporting the notion that mankind’s carbon dioxide is causing catastrophic or even dangerous warming, and spending billions or even trillions of dollars trying to mitigate a non-problem with “solutions” that will not work and will have no meaningful effect on global temperatures is mindless stupidity and wasteful spending. Mankind cannot control climate and to think otherwise is an assault on reason and common sense.