Coverage of climate change by major news programs dropped sharply in 2016

WASHINGTON — The presidential election naturally dominated news programs in 2016, but a new study finds that one popular topic in particular took a surprisingly quiet back seat on major networks last year: climate change.

A new report from Media Matters for America, a watchdog group, reveals that climate change coverage on four of America’s largest news networks ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX— plus PBS, during peak hours, decreased from 146 total minutes to 50 minutes from 2015 to 2016.

The combined number of minutes climate change was reported on during major news programs shrunk considerably in 2016, a Media Matters study finds.

This drop represents a 66% decrease in coverage time year-to-year, when looking solely at evening and Sunday news program coverage.

Media Matters found that nearly 80% of climate change coverage occurred during evening hour programs, as opposed to Sunday programs.

In 2016, CBS aired the most coverage of climate change of the four networks, clocking in at 27 minutes. NBC only aired 10 minutes of coverage last year; surprising perhaps, as they aired 50 minutes on the phenomenon in 2015.

FOX and ABC aired just seven and six minutes of coverage last year, respectively.

Climate change coverage, it should be noted, increased fivefold from election day until the end of 2016.

Interestingly, the vast majority of news segments on climate change concerned its effects on extreme weather and plants and wildlife. No segments were dedicated toward its potential effects on national security, while PBS was the only network to air any segments on its potential economic impact.

The vast majority of climate change segments covered topics relating to the Paris Climate Agreement and President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Comparatively little attention was given to stories addressing the Keystone XL or Dakota Access Pipelines.

A Media Matters study shows that the PBS News Hour aired the most climate change segments in 2016, while the three major networks lagged far behind.

PBS was by far the news network most inclined to include scientific experts and consensus in their segments. Conversely, among the nightly news shows, ABC World News Tonight largely kept away from the topic, airing just two segments on climate-related scientific research — yet interviewing zero scientists. (NBC Nightly News only aired three segments on research, but did interview or quote five scientists.)

Perhaps most alarming was last year’s aforementioned disproportionate ratio of coverage during evening hour programs, compared to Sunday programs. In 2015, an equal amount of time73 minutes was dedicated to each format.

It will be certainly interesting to see whether climate change coverage picks back up in 2017, after 2016 was noted as the hottest year on record. With politics continuing to dominate the talk, will it remain in the back seat?

Media Matters’ report is titled How Broadcast Networks Covered Climate Change in 2016.


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