Morning and evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as PBS’ evening news program NewsHour, aired a whopping 53 segments on climate change from October 31 to November 6 during a week of joint coverage as part of the initiative Covering Climate Now and as the first week of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) got underway. Leading the way was ABC, which aired 22 total segments -- roughly 42% of all broadcast TV news segments during this time period. CBS aired 14 segments, NBC aired 12 segments, and PBS’ NewsHour aired five segments (PBS has significantly less air time, which accounts for a lower segment count in comparison to its corporate broadcast counterparts).
Of these 53 climate segments, 31 were about COP26, which helps illustrate how much these networks expanded their coverage of climate issues to illustrate what is at stake in Glasgow.
Specifically for ABC, CBS, and NBC (the corporate broadcast networks), their reporting during the first week of COP26 follows a trend of improved climate coverage in 2021. These numbers are even better in comparison to their reporting totals from last year, when corporate broadcast networks’ morning and evening news shows aired a total of 207 climate segments. During the first week of COP26 alone, they aired 48 -- constituting over 20% of 2020’s total.
ABC was the best performer in terms of climate coverage -- a new benchmark for the network
ABC’s Good Morning America aired 15 climate segments, while World News Tonight aired seven segments. Both of these programs led their morning and evening broadcast counterparts in terms of the quantity of climate segments. ABC is historically the worst performing broadcast network in terms of quantity of climate reporting, as it has lagged behind its counterparts in yearly climate coverage since 2017. It has gotten better in 2021; for example, the network led the way in connecting climate change to a Western U.S. heat wave and drought in June. Its solid climate reporting last week is another step in the right direction.
The network’s reporting during the first week of COP26 positively demonstrates its new commitment to climate coverage, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In late October, ABC announced that it was joining the Covering Climate Now initiative; launching a specialized climate reporting unit that would kick off with a new reporting series called “Climate Crisis: Saving Tomorrow.”
In addition to leading its counterparts in climate coverage last week, ABC became one of the few U.S. television networks to cover a critically underreported climate story: a severe drought in Madagascar which, according to the United Nations, “could become the first famine caused by climate change.” The November 1 segment was led by World News Tonight host David Muir and lasted eight minutes, which is uncommonly long for a broadcast TV evening news segment:
A shorter version of this segment also aired on the November 1 edition of Good Morning America, while a follow-up to this segment aired on the November 4 edition of World News Tonight.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Muir became “the first American journalist to access southern Madagascar through the World Food Program.” Indeed, reporting on the climate-fueled famine in Madagascar has been extremely scarce in the U.S.; besides a brief mention of it on CNN in late June, there has been no broadcast or cable TV news reporting on the issue. Kudos to ABC for covering it.
Thirteen of ABC’s climate segments were about issues other than COP26. Topics included India’s coal usage and the country’s critical importance to global climate action, how climate change is fueling wildfires, and climate’s role in flooding in both Maldives and New York City. ABC’s nine COP26 segments mostly touched upon the importance of the U.S.’ infrastructure bill in relation to the conference; they also mentioned agreements on methane and deforestation.
The bulk of ABC’s climate coverage aired on November 1; nine segments aired that day, with seven on Good Morning America. Finally, in addition to its climate reporting, Good Morning America ran a series last week on how homeowners can green their living styles and reduce their carbon footprint, but only one of these segments mentioned climate change.
CBS aired 14 climate segments, NBC aired 12, and PBS’ NewsHour aired five
Eight of CBS’ climate segments aired on its morning programs (seven on the weekday CBS Mornings and one on CBS Saturday Morning), while six aired on its evening programs (four on the weekday CBS Evening News and two on CBS Weekend News). Like ABC, CBS also covered an underreported climate story on broadcast TV: climate change’s impact on vulnerable communities, particularly Native Americans. On the November 4 edition of CBS Evening News, the segment looked at how rising sea levels are forcing the Quileute Tribe in the Northwest Pacific to higher grounds.
In addition, CBS was the only corporate broadcast TV network to cover youth climate protests in Glasgow on November 6, airing a segment on both CBS Saturday Morning and CBS Weekend News:
Five of CBS’ segments were about climate issues other than COP26. Two segments were on ecotourism in Iceland, two were on how peat bogs can help the fight against climate change, and one segment was about climate’s impact on pumpkins. The COP26 segments included general overviews about the importance of the conference and two segments on youth climate protests.
NBC, meanwhile, aired 12 segments during the first week of COP26. Eight of these aired on Today, and four of them aired on NBC Nightly News. Only two of NBC’s segments were about climate issues other than COP26. One segment was about how climate change is affecting coffee production in South America, and the other was a report by NBC weather anchor Al Roker, who linked climate change to warming autumn temperatures during the November 3 edition of Today.
Most of NBC’s COP26 segments revolved around the U.S. infrastructure bill. Additionally, the network interviewed Bill Gates at COP26, who called for a green industrial revolution. This interview aired once each on Today and Nightly News.
Finally, PBS’ evening news program NewsHour aired five climate segments from October 31 to November 6. Three of these came during its weekday editions. These included segments on what’s at stake for President Joe Biden at COP26, China’s importance in fighting climate change, and climate’s impact on melting tropical glaciers. Climate change was also the main focus of the November 6 edition of NewsHour Weekend. The program included a segment on how behavioral science is helping communities in Northern California cope with climate disasters and an interview with youth climate activist and executive director of Our Climate Jasmine Sanders, who was interviewed about youth climate actions at COP26.
Despite the quantity of climate segments, there are still areas of improvement for the networks
COP26 is incredibly important for global action on climate change, so the volume of climate segments aired by these networks is good to see. There were, however, some long-standing issues with the reporting that did appear.
A majority of the segments on climate issues not related to COP26 touched upon international climate issues -- India’s coal usage, flooding in the Maldives, and ecotourism in Iceland, for example. While these stories are obviously important, as climate change is a global issue, the broadcast networks’ reporting during the first week of COP26 should have been more focused on how climate change is affecting people's lives and livelihoods right here in the U.S. -- especially given the importance of the climate provisions in the infrastructure bill. CBS’ story on climate change’s impact on the Quileute Tribe was a good start, and we hope to see more of this kind of reporting in the future.
Additionally, the climate segments included a number of human interest stories -- climate’s impact on pumpkins and coffee production and ABC’s series on going green at home, for example. These types of stories are nice, but they obscure the crucially important fact that climate change is a political problem that is largely systemic in nature. In 2021, we know what’s driving climate change and what the obstacles are to solving it. In the future, more reporting should be focused on these more substantive systemic issues around climate change and the solutions needed to address these problems.
Finally, NBC aired its Bill Gates interview at COP26 across the network’s morning and evening news show. There are plenty of activists doing on-the-ground climate work at COP26. More interviews with them, please, and less with a billionaire who is absolutely involved in greenwashing.
As these four broadcast TV networks are partners of Covering Climate Now (as is the cable news network CNN), a journalistic initiative that aims to help the media conduct better reporting on climate change, they should be aiming to continue their climate coverage past COP26. Given how poorly the broadcast networks performed in covering climate change in 2020 (particularly ABC, CBS, and NBC) their coverage can really only get better from here. The first week of COP26 shows that they are going in the right direction.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream and Kinetiq video databases for ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight; CBS’ CBS Mornings and Evening News, NBC’s Today and Nightly News, and PBS’ NewsHour for any of the terms “climate,” “global warming,” or “global heating” from October 31 through November 6, 2021.
We included segments where climate change was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of climate change. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed climate change with one another. We did not include headline reports, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host read headlines in rapid succession that included climate change as one of their topics. We also did not include mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned climate change without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about climate change scheduled to air later in the broadcast.