More than a decade ago, ABC News pulled off an amazing feat: a 2007 special edition of “20/20” that called attention to the rapid deterioration of the global environment. Reporters were stationed on all seven continents. The news unit even managed to have the lights turned off on the Empire State Building and Times Square to symbolize the dire threat posed by the decline of the earth’s natural support systems. Anchor Diane Sawyer had to use a flashlight – on camera – to maneuver around the set.
Bill Weir, then an ABC News correspondent who provided a report for the special from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, thought it marked the start of a real focus by TV-news outlets on the challenges of climate change. He was wrong.
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“The recession and Obamacare came,” said Weir, who is now CNN’s chief climate correspondent. “We had the rug pulled out from under us, those of us who care about the topic.” Besides, he asks, “who wants to pop some corn and gather the kids around and watch a show about the end of the world?”
Several of the nation’s biggest TV outlets hope that in 2019, the answer is “More than there used to be.”
Suddenly, TV news outlets that have found climate-change coverage difficult to emphasize for prolonged periods are warming up to more ambitious reporting. NBC News has launched a new “climate unit” that will present reports throughout this week, says Janelle Rodriguez, the NBC News senior vice president who will oversee it, and has plans to live-stream a two-day forum on the topic from Georgetown University. CBS News has been running “Eye on Earth” reports throughout its programs. CNN gained recent notice for an hours-long series of “town hall” interviews with Democratic candidates on the topic.
It’s easy to dismiss these efforts as something geared toward getting ratings around the time the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is expected to release a dim report on the global climate in Monaco. But news executives and academics suggest the winds are shifting and that news aficionados can expect more stories about their environment to show up in their information diet.
“We are not just going to do a week on this and then won’t be talking about it again,” says Rashida Jones, senior vice president of specials for NBC News and MSNBC. “This is the biggest story of our time.”
For years, it has not been. Walter Cronkite had concerns about the planet, says Al Ortiz, CBS News’ vice president of standards and practices, and late in his career anchored several long CBS News reports on the topic. But news presentations on the subject have in the more recent past often focused on the politics around climate change, rather than the deteriorating environment itself. NBC News’ “Meet the Press” surprised critics and viewers in January when anchor Chuck Todd devoted an entire hour to the topic. He called climate change “a literally Earth-changing subject that doesn’t get talked about this thoroughly, on television news at least,” and then announced the show wasn’t going to treat the subject as if it were a matter for debate. “The Earth is getting hotter. And human activity is a major cause, period. We’re not going to give time to climate deniers.”
While many other nations have pronounced the issue a threat, the U.S. has gotten bogged down over whether citizens believe the issue is real. “TV news felt the need to be balanced, but balance isn’t the same thing as being accurate,” says Jeffrey Blevins, who heads the journalism department at the University of Cincinnati and has studied how the media covers divisive issues. As a result, the issue of climate change often “looks like a toss-up” in TV programming, he says, and the networks often cover it as a debate rather than a certainty.
“Let’s face it,” says Blevins. “Politics is better television than science.”
A funny thing has happened, however, on the way to the potential apocalypse. Climate change has moved from a topic of discussion to a phenomenon that turns up in people’s backyards. Intense hurricanes and tornadoes are swirling around the nation with greater frequency. Rainfall is often increasing, along with flooding. The weather is hard to dismiss, notes Al Roker, the weather anchor for NBC’s “Today” and a co-anchor of the show’s third hour. And news units have a raft of statistics about intensifying hurricane speeds and inches of rainfall to deploy.
“We have been doing the stories,” he says. “The facts are there. You don’t need to add your editorial comment to it.”
Indeed, a recent survey shows more people are well convinced about what’s happening to the environment. The percentage of Americans who say global warming is personally important is now at a record high of 72%, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication – up nine percentage points since March of 2018. What’s more, the research unit found the number of Americans who say the issue of global warming is personally important to them outnumbers those who don’t by more than a 2 to 1 margin, according to findings presented in January.
“We are seeing demographics shift. More and more people are becoming concerned and alarmed about climate change,” says Emma Frances Bloomfield, a professor at the University of Las Vegas who studies communication around scientific controversies. That in turn is spurring more discussion about the topic from politicians, she says, which then sparks wider coverage from news outlets. “It grabs headlines in ways that the usual ‘some people say it’s happening, and some people don’t’ does not,” she adds.
One thing making all of that possible is that news outlets have moved from discussing theories to capturing hard images from around the world. Now viewers of TV news can see the rising floodwaters, devastating after-effects of hurricanes and melting glacier ice. “Natural disasters are causing people to see climate change in their own backyard, even in places where people are more conservative” politically, says Bloomfield. And those events have spurred “a secular upsurge of sustained coverage of natural disasters” since the start of the decade, says Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who tracks content on the nation’s three broadcast-network evening news programs. In recent months, coverage of massive storms and the like has commanded more time per week than the economy, healthcare and transportation, he notes. “TV news prefers visual, kinetic, breaking news stories over the abstract, the hypothetical, and the longterm, and there are few events that are as kinetic as hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and extreme weather.”
Coverage of climate change also offers a chance to engage people who aren’t always the most rabid consumers of TV news: younger viewers. CBS News polling shows the rising generation is potentially more engaged around the issue than baby boomers and others, says CBS News’ Ortiz, who is overseeing coverage of the topic at the news division. “There is a real curiosity among younger people to explore what’s happening, why it is happening and what you can do about it,” he says. “I really don’t think the next generation wants to throw up its hands and do nothing about it.”
TV news is often the province of viewers in their 50s, 60s and 70s – a prime reason why so much of the programming is accompanied by ads for pharmaceuticals, life insurance and memory stimulants. Latching on to a topic of great concern to those who will inherit the ramifications of a changing earth is also a way to fuel viewership at a time when so many of the news outlets are also building out live-streaming video services.
Covering climate change could also help lead the news networks into other stories of interest to younger consumers. Viewers also want to hear about solutions, and that can include stories about food production, alternate energy sources, land use and migration patterns.
“I call it the beat of the future, because there’s no end to the story,” says Ortiz.
Rather than seeing lights go out, as he did in 2007, CNN’s Weir wants to turn new ones on. To drive the story of Earth’s changes home, he is taking a small team out to different parts of the globe and trying to capture distinctive images that make eyes widen. “My goal is to shoot everything as sort of cinematically as possible, to make my pieces pop, to craft them and not crash them,” he says. The work, he believes, is important and represents a public service. “I think we are at the point in the conversation where the critical mass of people realize the house is on fire. Now the conversation is ‘Is it a four-alarm fire? Is it a five-alarm fire?’”