Jul 27, 2019 - Energy & Environment

TV news' climate change bias

Illustration of a vintage photo of a young boy watching television

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

While newspapers are teaming up to double down on their climate change coverage, broadcasters are focusing on covering the byproducts of climate change — natural disasters and extreme weather.

Why it matters: Climate change tends to be a ratings killer for television, because it can be abstract and complicated to explain in short, visual bites. But as the economic and political debate around the topic increases, media experts will be looking at the ways television outlets cover the issue, as television is still the most common place for Americans to get their news.

Be smart: Covering climate change isn't just about whether an outlet covers the topic, but also how.

  • Earlier this year, The Guardian changed its style guide to convey with more urgency the environmental crises unfolding, prompting other media outlets, like the CBC, Canada’s national public broadcaster and The Los Angeles Times, to review their own standards.

Between the lines: Media, which is struggling as a business, is often incentivized to cover what consumers want, not necessarily what's most important. (And Americans can be hypocritical about news they want to consumer versus news they actually do consume.)

  • An Axios study earlier this year found that while climate change was the second-highest ranked issue they wished to read more about, it was ranked fifth across a range of topics about things they actually do read.

Yes, but: Now that climate change is a super-charged political issue, the media is starting to pay more attention.

  • "The media naturally gravitates to controversy, and Trump has made climate change more controversial than ever," writes Axios' energy columnist Amy Harder.
  • Climate change has become major policy priority for many of the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders, bringing the issue more mainstream.
  • 60 prominent news outlets in radio, TV, and print this week committed to running one week of focused climate coverage around the U.N.s climate summit in September.

The bottom line: Climate change still lags in on-air time, but is starting to get more attention in print. Expect to see even more coverage ahead of the 2020 campaign.

Read more about the impacts of climate change we're tracking:

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