CNN’s Climate Coverage Shows Signs of Improvement

July 30, 2014 | 1:25 pm
Aaron Huertas
Former Contributor

Earlier this year, we released an analysis that examined cable news climate coverage from the top three networks. In 2013, CNN aired inaccurate statements about the science in 30 percent of its climate-change-related segments. Such misleading statements usually took place during debates about established science. Guests, including politicians and commentators, also made inaccurate statements about climate science that often went unchallenged.

CNN climate coverage in 2013I looked back at LexisNexis transcripts from the last three months of coverage on the network and found some significant improvements, both in content, tone, and tenor. For instance, on May 6, science journalist and CNN correspondent Miles O’Brien put it bluntly while discussing climate change on The Situation Room: “I think we have gotten to the point it’s almost like the cigarette debate, where it is given – it’s an assumption that it is happening.”

Still, some programs continued to air inaccurate statements about climate science.

Misleading debates about climate science

In early May, CNN’s Crossfire pitted science educator Bill Nye against Heritage Foundation economist Nicolas Loris. Loris tried to discount the link between climate change and extreme weather by focusing on the most tenuously connected phenomena: tornadoes and hurricanes. Naturally, Loris didn’t mention coastal flooding, heat waves and changes to precipitation, which are tied strongly to climate change. Even a science communicator as talented as Nye couldn’t stop the cherry-picking and misinformation. “Let’s talk about the facts,” Nye said at one point, but host S.E. Cupp cut him off and equated communicating science to using “scare tactics.”

UCS -- Extreme Weather and Climate Change

This UCS figure is adapted from a 2012 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. It shows how strong the scientific link is between climate change and various types of extreme weather. On CNN, Heritage Foundation economist Nicolas Loris misrepresented the science by only talking about what’s shown on the left side of this graphic.

As Nye demonstrated on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, a “fair” debate on climate science might involve 97 scientists arguing against one contrarian talking head.

Two approaches to a silly Pat Sajak tweet

Wheel of Fortune fans might be surprised to know that host Pat Sajak uses Twitter to share his views about a host of hot-button issues. Sajak set off a kerfuffle in late May when he posted a politically charged climate message to Twitter.

On May 21, OutFront interviewed political commentator Ann Coulter about the message. Her statements fed into the false notion that one’s political ideology should determine whether or not one accepts or rejects climate science.

By contrast, CNN host Carol Costello, who has previously argued that debates about established science are misleading, opened her segment on Sajak’s tweet by saying: “Climate change is real, but some people keep debating this issue…” Costello used the incident as an opportunity to interview a CNN religion commentator and a reverend from the Evangelical Environmental Network about moral aspects of the climate debate.

Pressing politicians about climate change

Bill Weir interviews Sen. Marco Rubio

CNN host Bill Weir interviews Sen. Marco Rubio about a number of topics, including climate change.

CNN programs had a mixed record on questioning politicians when it came to their statements about climate science. In our 2013 coverage report, we recommend that hosts and producers do more to challenge policymakers when they dismiss or overstate the risks of climate change, either on-air or on their websites.

On May 6, CNN’s Bill Weir interviewed Florida Senator Marco Rubio regarding a number of issues, including climate change. Rubio told him, “I understand that there is a vast consensus of scientists that are saying that human activity is what’s contributing to changes in our climate. I think it’s an enormous stretch to say that every weather incident we now read about or the majority of them are attributable to human activity.”

Sen. Rubio’s first statement is correct, but his second is a strawman. A good follow-up question might have been to ask the senator what he thought about responding to sea-level rise and coastal flooding along Florida’s shores, which are tied to climate change. To their credit, CNN’s website did touch upon coastal flooding in an article partially based on Weir’s interview.

On May 15, CNN host Wolf Blitzer talked to California Gov. Jerry Brown specifically about wildfires. Gov. Brown called climate change “a factor” in worsening fires — a justifiable statement — and when pressed by Blitzer on the issue, further explained how climate change exacerbates the conditions that lead to wildfires.

Bringing in diverse political voices on climate change

In our report, we argued that programs could do more to highlight guests who accurately represent climate science, regardless of their views on policy. Such guests can participate in good-faith dialogue about climate policy without rejecting or overstating the science.

On June 2, @ThisHour host John Berman asked political commentator Margaret Hoover about Republican reactions to the president’s climate plans. She replied: “The majority of Republicans, most Republicans actually do believe that there is such a thing as climate change. We Republicans have been caricatured as those who are anti-science and don’t think humans can contribute to the Earth’s changing temperatures. But many of us do think that. The issue is what to do about it.”

Fareed Zakaria interviews former Treasury secretaries Henry Paulson and Robert Rubin about climate change.

Fareed Zakaria interviews former Treasury secretaries Henry Paulson and Robert Rubin about climate change.

Similarly, on June 29, Fareed Zakaria interviewed a bipartisan pair of former Treasury secretaries, including Republican appointee Henry Paulson. Zakaria asked about reticence among Republican officials to accept climate science. Paulson replied, “Well, Fareed, I think there are a lot of fellow Republicans, my fellow Republicans, business leaders and political leaders, that are ready for a serious discussion about the science and the risks that come out of the science, and I think the resistance to doing some of the things we need to do is much broader than just Republican Party.”

I hope CNN continues to offer more fair-minded, scientifically accurate segments on climate change. Doing so can better inform its viewers about the choices we face when it comes to a changing climate.

*I asked two CNN employees — a senior vice president for communications and an executive vice president of News Standards and Practices — if they’d like to offer any comment on this analysis and did not hear back from them.