Paying attention to climate change, and treating it as a factual matter of settled scientific consensus, are bare minimums for the media
|Jon Allsop, CJR|AIWA! NO!|On Friday, as Americans digested their Thanksgiving dinners, headed out shopping, or stayed in to catch a game, the White House slipped out a dire report on the worsening impact of climate change. The report, issued by 13 federal agencies as part of the Congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment, warned that increasingly frequent natural disasters, like the wildfires ravaging California, could help shear 10 percent off the US economy by 2100 if swift action is not taken. The timing of the report’s release struck many journalists and politicians as a ploy to bury conclusions that contradict President Trump’s extreme deregulatory climate agenda. The hunch was borne out by the Times’s Coral Davenport, who reported that the White House did indeed bet on diminished public interest over Thanksgiving.
Using holidays to dump bad news is a timeworn tactic. This time, however, it appears to have backfired, at least to some extent. In news cycles past, a terrifying official report would have driven the agenda for days; in Trump’s Washington, such stories can get submerged within minutes. The relatively quiet holiday weekend at least gave the report a greater share of the available public attention. And Thanksgiving or not, journalists are in no mood to let this president slide embarrassing news out the back door. As Penn State climate scientist Michael E. Mann tweeted Friday, “Ironically, ‘Trump trying to bury climate report’ is such a compelling media narrative that it might lead to GREATER coverage of the National Climate Assessment.”
The report got big play on Saturday morning. Using the Newseum’s online gallery of newspaper covers, CJR found that at least 140 titles nationwide put the story prominently on their front page, including the Times, the Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Miami Herald. More than 20 of these papers were in California, where wildfires continue to offer a strong news peg. Other titles, from Maine to Hawaii and Florida to Washington state, led off the report with their own localized looks at the impact of climate change. In Mississippi, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger splashed that the issue has been absent from the state’s upcoming US Senate run-off between Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith (whose comments about the Confederacy and attending a “public hanging” have dominated the debate) and Democratic challenger Mike Espy.
This widespread coverage was a positive outcome. On the whole, however, the media is still falling desperately short. With some praiseworthy exceptions, coverage of the California fires has not asserted a strong enough link to climate change—which does not, on its own, “cause” wildfires, but does facilitate and intensify them as rising temperatures make kindling of vegetation. However dire their predictions, official reports remain, to varying degrees, abstractions for news consumers. The media should cite them high up in their stories whenever “real-life” climate tragedies—with their graphic images of human suffering—strike, and vice versa.
On the Sunday shows yesterday, the tenor of some coverage was much worse. MSNBC’s Meet the Press gave a platform to the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka—a self-professed “not a scientist”—who used her airtime to assert that “we shouldn’t be hysterical” about climate change because “we just had two of the coldest years… that we have had since the 1980s.” On CNN’s State of the Union, meanwhile, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said climate scientists are “driven by money.”
Paying attention to climate change, and treating it as a factual matter of settled scientific consensus, are bare minimums for the media. It was thus depressing, over the weekend, that the former counted as a victory while some prominent news organizations could not even manage the latter. It is positive that Trump’s news dump backfired. But when it comes to burying the reality of climate change, the news media is still complicit.
Below, more on climate change:
- A good example: The release of the National Climate Assessment diddovetail with some nice enterprise reporting over the weekend. As of Monday morning, the Times still led its homepage with Somini Sengupta’s dispatch from Vietnam on the global coal industry and Abrahm Lustgarten’s investigation, in partnership with ProPublica, about the devastating consequences of US biofuels regulations in Indonesia.
- A TV failure: Media Matters for America’s John Whitehouse has a good Twitter thread rounding up some of the weekend’s worst TV climate coverage. He also re-ups MMFA’s finding, first published in February, that Sunday news shows did not feature a single scientist during any climate-related segment in 2016 or 2017.
- The shoe fits: On CNN, Brian Stelter pointed out that Fox News only mentioned the climate report once on Friday, devoting more airtime to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shoes.
- “A shrinking planet”: ICYMI last week, The New Yorker published this haunting deep-dive on our changing climate by the environmentalist and campaigner Bill McKibben. “‘Climate change,’ like ‘urban sprawl’ or ‘gun violence,’ has become such a familiar term that we tend to read past it,” McKibben writes.
- False balance: In the UK, the BBC has repeatedly drawn criticism for giving a platform to climate change deniers. In a September note to staffers, the broadcaster admitted it had got its coverage wrong too often, and offered training on how to report on global warming.