Why TV Is So Bad at Covering Climate Change

Why TV Is So Bad at Covering Climate Change
Screenshot: CNN

On Saturday, Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, tweeted that she’d be appearing on CNN to talk to Fareed Zakaria about the record-breaking heat wave gripping the West. The next day, she announced her segment had been cut. “Bumped, due to billionaire going to space,” she wrote.

Hayhoe was slated to appear on CNN as Death Valley was clocking the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on the planet, on the heels of another heat wave that killed hundreds of people across the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Meanwhile, Richard Branson spent 3 or 4 minutes weightless to advertise a spaceship that will offer seats for hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop — and earned wall-to-wall coverage on broadcast networks this weekend, many of which aired footage of his “brief joyride.”

Juxtaposing the amount of public alarm and loss of life tied to these record-breaking heat waves versus the importance (or lack thereof) of Branson’s little trip to space makes Hayhoe getting bumped particularly enraging. These past few weeks have been so dire that it has felt like a breakthrough moment culturally on climate change — that networks like CNN then decided to throw away by filming a billionaire floating around in zero gravity. And Branson’s stunt taking precedence on primetime over our rapidly unfolding climate crisis isn’t an exception, but rather the norm. It shows that cable news, and TV news as a whole, still largely continues to fail at grasping the climate crisis as the existential threat it is. Instead, coverage prioritises entertainment and sensationalism that keeps people watching the commercial breaks.

Reading Hayhoe’s tweets, I was brought back to a really specific period in my life when trying to get scientists like her on TV was my actual job. Before I was a reporter, in my mid-20s, I worked first at a PR agency and then at a nonprofit science communications organisation. At both places, I was the hamster spinning the wheel trying to make climate happen on TV, emailing and calling cable producers to try and make them talk to the scientists and experts I was working with.

Booking someone as a guest on cable TV for a big show is a nightmare process. You had to make sure that the person could get to a big city with a broadcast studio on a quick turnaround to film their segment, which often rules out basically every scientist or activist living in rural areas (or those who have, you know, lives and can’t drop everything to go film at 11 p.m.). Producers also tend to prefer people with previous TV experience, meaning experts in their field who could really give the best insight on the topic or activists doing amazing work were often passed over for someone more well-known or someone with more stage presence or experience.

Then there’s the unforgiving news cycle, which is uniquely hellish for cable TV in a way that it isn’t for other kinds of news. I can’t tell you how many times situations like Hayhoe’s unfolded on my end, where a guest was told last-minute that the segment wasn’t going to happen. Getting a scientist or expert actually on TV, even when they were qualified and ready, happened so rarely that every time I made a broadcast booking, I mentally prepared myself to tell the expert in question that they weren’t actually going to be on TV because something else had happened that producers had deemed more important.

A firefighter sprays water while trying to stop the Sugar Fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex Fire, from spreading. (Photo: Noah Berger, AP) A firefighter sprays water while trying to stop the Sugar Fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex Fire, from spreading. (Photo: Noah Berger, AP)

Even when networks were covering the climate crisis, they often did so on their own terms. A climate scientist I was working with was bumped three separate times from MSNBC during the weekend Hurricane Harvey hit. He’d been slated to appear to explain how climate change amps up hurricanes, crucial context to understand the disaster unfolding and inform policy discussions on how to protect people from future storms. I remember watching one segment in a slot he’d been taken out of last minute, where the reporter covering the weather on the ground in Houston narrated how heavy the rain was and the force of the wind gusts — with zero mention of climate change.

That anecdote illustrates a pretty important point: a lot of broadcast media is a form of news and entertainment. Having an expert explain how climate change made Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall worse is important for the future of our planet; showing a reporter struggle in tough winds is entertaining. The way MSNBC reported the storm was, in essence, extreme weather eye candy. (To their credit, they included at least one climate change segment that weekend, and several postmortems afterward — but it was interspersed with wall-to-wall coverage of reporters in the storm.)

I sensed that it had been perhaps so hard for me to get scientists on TV partially because hearing about science can be a little dry — bran flakes, not candy. Branson’s flight was kind of like putting a reporter in a storm: modelling arguably irresponsible behaviour (do reporters need to struggle in fierce winds when they should be evacuating? Do we need to send billionaires to space?) while providing some fun eye candy (look at the rich man float!).

This isn’t just an anecdotal issue. Media Matters, which tracks how often TV networks cover climate change, reported earlier this year that nightly news and Sunday morning shows on ABC, CNN, NBC, and Fox covered climate change-related topics for just 112 total minutes in 2020. A lot of the absolutely shameful lack of coverage can, of course, be attributed to the intensity of last year, where we faced a global pandemic and a national reckoning over racial justice, not to mention the whole election and Republican attempt to undermine it thing. But even before 2020, TV networks weren’t doing so hot on climate: Media Matters reported that 2019 was one of the biggest years of coverage, when evening and Sunday morning shows covered climate 68% more than they had the year before, increasing their coverage to… a whopping 238 minutes for the entire year.

I wanted to better understand both my own experience and how the sausage is made when it comes to climate segments on big cable shows. I reached out to a producer at a big cable TV show for some insights. (They asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely with us.)

The producer explained that daily segments on their show are usually pitched at the beginning of the workday or the night before by producers; the executive producers will usually sign off on a topic and ask the booking producers to reach out to possible guests. But, they explained, there’s always room for “breaking news” to take precedent over a carefully planned climate segment.

“When breaking news happens, that often leads to at least one originally-planned segment getting killed — which can happen a lot to climate segments that aren’t the most pressing topic of the day,” the producer told me over text message.

The producer said that TV journalists, in their estimation, “are far more concerned with climate change today than they were a few years ago,” but there’s still a limit to how much that interest manifests on air.

“I’d say way more stories are pitched than make it on the air,” they wrote. “That applies to every topic, since there’s only so much that can go in a show. But I do think there are far more climate stories that are pitched and then never make air, compared to something more pressing like gun violence or police reform — which are just as important to cover — or the latest outrage segment over something happening in the White House or Congress.”

A firefighting tanker making a retardant drop over the Grandview Fire near Sisters, Oregon. (Photo: Oregon Department of Forestry via AP, AP) A firefighting tanker making a retardant drop over the Grandview Fire near Sisters, Oregon. (Photo: Oregon Department of Forestry via AP, AP)

Unsurprisingly, TV as a visual medium also dictates how cable news chooses to cover climate — and explains why big disasters often get the most pickup. “Wildfires are the easiest to cover because the video is usually incredible,” the producer said. “Something like a heat wave is slightly harder to show, though scary map graphics with temperature highs are pretty effective. It’s much harder to cover policy, however, whether that’s an explanation of what the Green New Deal does or the latest IPCC report.”

MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted in 2018 that climate was a “ratings killer,” and that “incentives are not great” for covering more climate stories. I brought that tweet up and asked if it was true that climate indeed hurts ratings. The producer said that’s definitely an issue when it comes to doing a climate segment, and because of that, it’s hard to justify covering climate more than the network already does. But I couldn’t find any hard data on how climate segments have performed on average on broadcast TV, and lots of climate journalists have pushed back on Hayes’s assertion that no one wants climate segments. It’s true that climate stories do, by and large, really well online. On this very site, our piece about the sky-high temperatures in Death Valley outperformed the writeup of Branson’s flight by about 10 to 1.

“The trick to covering climate change regularly is figuring out how to do climate change segments that people will watch — and convincing them that the issue is actually important to their lives,” the producer said.

This gets at a classic, age-old problem in climate communications: How do you get people to care about the slow death of our planet when there’s a bunch of other stuff happening rapid-fire right in front of our eyes? “As a society it’s as if we have a collective cat brain: fixated on the latest shiny toy that’s waving in front of our eyes while in the meantime our tail is on fire,” Hayhoe wrote in her tweet thread.

Honestly, I don’t know how to solve it. Sometimes, it feels a little like climate reporters are like Chicken Little, yelling constantly that the sky is falling — but at an incremental pace that you sort of have to squint to notice, and can probably ignore for a couple more years, depending on where you live. In a way, I don’t totally blame cable news for picking Branson over the climate crisis — a short clip of a billionaire floating around in zero gravity is probably a lot more fun to show on TV than footage of a bone-dry desert. Of course, this is also because the incentive structure is there to do so; journalists are generally hardwired to find sensational stories that will attract eyeballs. Our jobs, at least in ad-dependent media, actually require it. Climate disasters like the raging wildfires, crippling drought, and punishing heat waves out West can certainly do that.

While more big outlets are putting resources into climate reporting (CNN started a whole climate desk for its website) there’s still more work to be done. This weekend, the fact that networks by and large chose to do PR for a billionaire rather than cover the most pressing story of our time is evidence of that. The producer had a little bit more hope than I do for the future of climate reporting on TV. But even that’s tempered just a bit.

“It’s definitely frustrating to have conversations about ratings because it may be too late to address climate change by the time the industry starts covering it regularly,” the producer told me. “That being said, I definitely think it’s being covered more and more because we’re at a point where it’s impossible to ignore — and think TV execs are definitely aware that this is going to be the top story someday.”