December 2, 2021

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National TV news keeps ignoring the human costs of extreme weather events


Coverage of Hurricane Ida’s landfall followed this too-familiar pattern: Not only did most of the national TV news’ reporting fail to connect the storm to climate change, but the coverage also didn’t tell viewers how and why vulnerable communities suffer more from climate-fueled extreme weather events. I know this because I research it for a living. A recent Media Matters analysis found that from Aug. 27-30—when Ida quickly grew to a Category 4 hurricane—just 4% of the combined 774 total national TV news segments on Hurricane Ida mentioned climate change. To simplify, 96% of coverage ignored the key reason why hurricanes like Ida are much more dangerous.

The storm’s rapid intensification harmed evacuation efforts, especially for people who lacked the means or money to temporarily relocate out of Ida’s path. This is just one of many ways that climate-fueled extreme weather events like hurricanes disproportionately affect marginalized communities and people of color. But if you don’t understand why the same communities are ill-equipped to evade and recover from increasingly frequent and devastating storms like Hurricane Ida year after year, you’d be hard-pressed to find the answers during national TV news’ coverage of Ida’s path through southern Louisiana.

There was some good reporting on Ida that connected the deadly storm to climate justice (a term that acknowledges and seeks to correct the uneven harm climate change has on poor communities and communities of color). For example, during her Aug. 29 weather report, ABC meteorologist Ginger Zee aired a segment that marked the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall and focused on the “geographic inequities” that made flooding worse for Black communities. This included interviewing longtime residents about the socioeconomic inequality and racist policies that made it much more difficult for people in the area to return and rebuild.

During the Aug. 29 episode of MSNBC’s PoliticsNation, host Al Sharpton noted that “climate disasters are not equal opportunity events” before referencing a report by Scientific American on how flooding disproportionately harms Black neighborhoods. Sharpton then allowed guest Atima Omara, founder and president of Omara Strategy Group, to expound upon the question: “Is climate action a racial justice issue?”

Unfortunately, these segments are far too rare. Media Matters analyzed coverage of seven hurricanes and one tropical storm that occurred between 2017 to 2019 and found that none of the 669 corporate broadcast evening news segments about these storms mentioned their specific impacts on low-income communities or communities of color.

How can we build public consensus around necessary climate action when national TV news outlets refuse to consistently connect climate change to extreme weather events? When they refuse to discuss how and why socially marginalized communities are at greater risk from climate impacts? When they refuse to detail what public policy solutions exist to address these challenges? Shouldn’t the public be informed about the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long, billion-dollar campaigns to erode the public and political consensus on climate change and thwart any climate action that could impact its bottom line?

We would all be better served if national TV news shows routinely chronicled how polluting industries lobby to weaken environmental regulations at the local, state, and federal level. Viewers could be better informed about how industries seek to avoid accountability for the harm that results from lax standards and choosing to locate its physical infrastructure near vulnerable communities and what’s needed to prevent those abuses and their escalating effects on the environment.

In addition to Ida, just this summer we witnessed blistering heat waves that impacted tens of millions of Americans, destructive wildfires that have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in California, and drought that triggered the first-ever water shortage at Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir. These extreme climate events portend an ominous future, especially for socially marginalized communities clinging to a frayed social safety net, living on the front lines of our new climate normal.

To improve their coverage of extreme weather events, national TV news should connect extreme climate events to the ongoing political inaction that has allowed industries to pollute our air, land, and water with impunity. A just approach to climate coverage would include contextualizing historic and systemic inequalities that result in disparate impacts and consistently reporting on the fates of those with the least resources to rebuild or relocate.

Southern Louisiana is a resilient place. Although some will leave, many others will stay and rebuild. These are complex and nuanced decisions driven by personal choices, historical forces, and current climate realities. And national TV news must begin telling this complete story. Only then can we build public support for policies that protect and prepare all of us, especially the most vulnerable, from the worst consequences of climate change. Because those harmed by climate change deserve urgent action from our media and political classes.

Evlondo Cooper is a senior writer with the climate and energy program at Media Matters for America.

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