Columns, Opinion

Seen on TV: Hurricane Ida reporting exposes media’s climate blindspot

On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane. Sixteen years later to the day, Hurricane Ida, also a Category 4 hurricane with winds reaching up to 145 miles per hour, made landfall in the same city and state battered by Katrina. The devastation from Ida will likely not reach the same heights as Katrina in Louisiana, where, nearly two decades later, people are still recovering from the cataclysmic storm which claimed 1,577 lives in their state alone.

Yvonne Tang / DFP Staff

Still, the impact of Hurricane Ida was immense up and down the East Coast. In New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut — four of the states hit hardest in the Northeast — the death toll stands at 46.

Hurricane Ida was just one of many extreme weather events that occurred this summer throughout the country. An analysis by The Washington Post found that in this summer alone, one in three Americans experienced some form of major weather disaster. It seemed that at any point in time throughout the summer, one major section of the country was either on fire, underwater or in a drought.

The news media devoted extensive coverage to all of these events throughout the summer. For Hurricane Ida alone, a combined 774 segments were aired by TV news networks, according to the watchdog group Media Matters.

Extreme weather has always been big business for news networks, which have a predictable playbook covering these events. They send out correspondents wearing network-branded jackets to stand in front of scenes of chaos and yell over the wind into their microphones. High-tech CGI imagery of spinning storm clouds is often rolled out by graphics teams.

However, missing from this playbook, oftentimes, is the discussion of climate change.

Analysis from the aforementioned Media Matters reports among news segments devoted to the hurricane, only 4% made some reference to climate change. Across different platforms, this broke down to five mentions of climate change on network news broadcasts and 29 references on cable television.

Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that today’s superpowered hurricanes are a product of warming oceans due to man-made climate change, the American mainstream media seemingly will not point out this association to audiences.

It’s hard to understand or offer explanations for why the news media has decided, en masse, to exclude a key component of a major news story.

But there has to be some reasoning for this, right? This kind of widespread editorial decision-making doesn’t happen by accident. There has to be some calculation informing this.

It could be that the news media imagines that most Americans already understand the link between climate change and superpowered storms. If this is their assumption, it’s false. In a 2019 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 38% of Americans were reported to believe that climate change was not significantly impacting their community. This indicates a large portion of the population still sees climate change as a distant threat, or a nonexistent one.

The more cynical reasoning, and sadly the likeliest one, is that the media has made this decision out of commercial interests.

This can be illustrated by a 2018 incident wherein MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes responded to a tweet from freelance writer, Elon Green, who had called out Hayes on the mainstream media’s lack of coverage surrounding climate change. Hayes responded, “almost without exception, every single time we’ve covered [climate change] it’s been a palpable ratings killer. [S]o the incentives are not great.”

While the tweets of one cable news anchor don’t mirror the views of the executives at every network, the sentiment is likely somewhat representative of the larger issue at play. Reporting on topics like climate change that are complex and scientific is always going to be a harder sell than tabloid or political issues.

The main purpose of most television news, like everything on TV, is to make money. In the media’s calculus, giving airtime to a climate scientist is far less commercially sound than showing a clip of an anti-masker freaking out in a grocery store.

However, when viewed through a political lens, climate change can become more palatable for news networks. This same principle carries over into several different news stories. It’s not commercially viable until it’s controversial, and until it’s commercially viable, television media has limited interest in covering it.

Taking a look at nonprofit news outlets — like NPR, PBS, and The Guardian — you’ll find higher amounts of reporting on climate change. Perhaps the answer is to move towards deemphasizing the role of television and for-profit media when it comes to the issues that matter most. Until news networks begin to reprioritize important issues over commercial interests, we are unlikely to see much change in this area.

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