Senator Responds to Lack of Sunday Show Climate Coverage

Media watchdog’s study shows dip in agenda-setting programs’ coverage of climate in 2018 — despite worsening climate crisis

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) spoke out today about a media watchdog’s report on the downtick in the premier Sunday news shows’ climate change coverage in 2018. In the face of major climate-related catastrophes and the release of numerous comprehensive studies showing intensifying threats from climate change, the report by media watchdog Media Matters showed the agenda-setting programs on major networks “devoted fewer segments to significant discussion of climate change in 2018 than they did in 2017.” The findings continue a troubling trend of diminishing coverage of climate change across the programs.

Our broadcasters hold a special responsibility to inform the public on the most pressing challenges facing the American people,” said Whitehouse, a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a leading voice on climate change in the Senate. “With each passing day, the climate crisis grows more dire and our government’s response to that crisis more urgent. That is why this report is so troubling. It shows some of our most important voices in the national media falling silent on climate change at precisely the wrong moment.”

There were some bright spots in climate coverage on the Sunday shows during 2018. Media Matters noted that NBC’s Meet the Press took the “unprecedented” step of devoting an entire episode to climate change. Meet the Press host Chuck Todd also committed to grounding their coverage in sound science, saying during the episode, “We’re not going to give time to climate deniers; the science is settled, even if political opinion is not.”

Nonetheless, according to the report, climate change coverage made up a tiny fraction of Sunday shows’ programming in 2018:

Percentage of Shows’ Episodes Including Climate Change

In response to the lack of coverage, Whitehouse pledged to track the Sunday shows’ attention to climate change. Whitehouse plans to issue a monthly summary using Media Matters data of the number of segments on each show that discussed climate change. To count as a climate segment, Media Matters requires segments be wholly “devoted to climate change” or contain “any substantial mention of climate change (more than one paragraph of a news transcript or a definitive statement by a media figure).” Whitehouse’s summary will also include the number of episodes in a given month that included discussion of climate change.

The scientific community sounded major alarms on the outlook of our climate last year. Among the findings, the foremost international scientific body on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released a report showing climate change is occurring faster than previously understood, and signaling the world must undergo a rapid economic transformation unprecedented in human history. The federal government released its assessment of climate change, the National Climate Assessment, in 2018, which predicted unchecked climate change would inflict hundreds of billions of dollars per year in damage to the national economy, severe harm on public health, and devastation of vital natural resources in the United States. Scientists released an array of other disturbing findings, including reports showing massive and dangerous changes in our oceans.

Major climate-related natural disasters also hit many parts of the country, especially wildfires and hurricanes. Those crises dominated news coverage, but rarely did Sunday shows touch on their connection to climate change — a connection the scientific community has made with increasing confidence.

Media Matters also found:

  • “During the vast majority of Sundays in 2018–43 Sundays, or 83 percent — there was no significant discussion of climate change on any of the major Sunday shows. There was also no significant discussion of climate change on any of the shows during six of the 12 months of the year.
  • “Only 18 percent of guests featured in climate-focused discussions in 2018 were people of color — six out of 34 guests total.
  • “Only 35 percent of guests featured in climate-focused discussions in 2018 were women.
  • “Two scientists were featured in climate-related segments in 2018, after scientists had been excluded from all of the Sunday shows’ climate discussions for almost three years.”