The Media’s Failure on Climate Change

By Jon Lamson

“Every single journal should have a shrieking headline every day saying we are heading to total catastrophe. In a couple of generations, organized human society may not survive. That has to be drilled into people’s heads constantly,” Noam Chomsky said in a February interview. 

A brief look through the main webpages of mainstream media outlets hint at an alarming fact: climate change, perhaps the greatest existential threat that humanity has ever faced, is being vastly underreported when I was doing research for this! On the CNN main page, “climate” was mentioned once, in small print at the very bottom of the page (below an article about Apple’s charging cable). “Trump” appeared 18 times. On MSNBC’s website, “climate” appeared once (focusing on Leonardo DiCaprio, of course, again in small print buried at the bottom of the page), while “Trump” was mentioned a staggering 44 times, and occupies all of the main headlines. This trend continued when looking at The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NBC News, ABC News, Fox News, and MSNBC News. 

None of these outlets mention climate more than once on their entire main pages. The best I could find was The New York Times, who established a climate team in 2017. They mentioned climate three times (compared to 22 mentions of “Trump”), though all of these mentions were, again, buried at the bottom. Furthermore, anyone watching the recent Democratic debates can see that the issue of climate change has been vastly overlooked. Climate discussion has yet to make up more than 10% of any one debate, and in the CNN/New York Times debate, not a single question was asked. Loud calls for an official climate debate this summer were appeased with a “climate town hall.”

Aside from my hardly scientific test, there have been a few real studies on this issue. A research group from University of Colorado at Boulder that tracks media coverage of climate change in five of the largest U.S. newspapers has shown that since 2016, media coverage of the issue has increased. It also shows that The New York Times has consistently given the most coverage to the climate, with the least coverage coming from The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. 

One major problem is that published articles surrounding the topic tend to do a poor job of explaining climate change, and fail to provide the American public with the necessary information to understand the mechanisms and magnitude of the crisis. One study by Aaron Huertas and  Rachel Kriegsman found only 28% of Fox News segments on climate to be accurate. While this may not come as a surprise, another study published earlier this year on The New York Times’ coverage noted that only 0.2% of their climate articles mentioned the basic mechanism for global warming (something that only about 12% of Americans actually understand). The scientific consensus around the issue was mentioned in only 4% of articles, while the “effectively permanent” nature of these changes was only mentioned in 0.4%. While they may not be spreading blatant misinformation, they have still failed to adequately inform the public on the issue. These shortcomings are particularly alarming considering that the New York Times has proven to be the mainstream news outlet most committed to covering the climate, so it is reasonable to assume that the other outlets are not doing much better. 

These failings of the press have helped to create and maintain a vastly uninformed public. Only 17% of Americans believe the statement that at least 90% of climate scientists believe that the climate is warming due to human activity, according to a study by David Romps and Joan Retzinger. This misinformation has spread throughout local, state and federal government: in a recent interview. Colorado Springs City Councilman Andres Pico stated, “There’s probably more science published in opposition than areas in support of manmade climate change,” a blatant and destructive lie.

Polling from earlier this year from the Pew Research Center shows that Americans see climate and environmental action as the eighth most important issue, with only 56% saying that it should be a top issue for the U.S. government to address. Due to the limited time we have to combat this issue, it is necessary for the American people to line up with the scientific consensus, and for the media to cover the issue with the intensity and integrity that it merits.  

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