Jun 22, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Climate coverage booms, but still pales compared to weather

Monthly seconds spent covering weather and climate
Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Climate-focused news initiatives are pushing media outlets to devote more coverage to the way climate change impacts extreme weather events.

Why it matters: Meteorologists and weather journalists, who worry the topic is under-covered and over-politicized, are leading these newsroom efforts in many instances.

Driving the news: On Monday, the nonprofit science research group Climate Central launched a new initiative designed to detect unusual weather or climate events around the country and trigger real-time e-mail alerts to newsrooms with information on the underlying climate change context.

  • The bulletins, delivered via email, will come complete with TV-ready graphics. The program, called Realtime Climate, is designed to bring the global conversation around climate down to the local level.
  • A handful of other groups and coalitions, like iseechange.org and Covering Climate Now, are building similar programs, in an effort to bring more climate coverage to news companies, local weather forecasters and ordinary citizens.
  • "We're at a point in society where we can’t separate weather and climate," says Bernadette Woods Placky, Chief Meteorologist and Climate Matters Program Director at Climate Central. "I feel like this conversation is advancing."

The big picture: Climate Central's new tool builds on their experience helping local TV weathercasters convey to viewers how climate change is affecting them.

  • Meteorologists "intimately understood weather models," says Woods Placky.
  • But when they try to apply their knowledge of weather models to climate models, "they weren't understanding fully what they could trust in the data on these bigger timeframes."

Between the lines: As climate change intensifies and causes more dangerous weather events, more attention is also being placed on weather coverage. But not all weather coverage is as inclusive of climate narratives.

  • While some new efforts, like Currently — a new weather news outlet created in partnership with Twitter — promise to make climate change a critical part of coverage, others, like Fox News' new ad-supported service Fox Weather, will focus more on covering weather.
  • A spokesperson says Fox Weather "will be a full service platform covering all weather conditions, including immediate and long term patterns."

AccuWeather is one of the many outlets partnering with Climate Central to help incorporate more climate coverage into its weather coverage, which is notable, given that the network had a mixed record when it comes to climate coverage.

  • "We try to put weather and climate in the context of what our audience needs to know in order prepare and plan for their day-to-day activities, whether that’s today, tomorrow, or looking ahead to an entire season," says Trish Mikita, VP of Content, AccuWeather.
  • Meanwhile, AccuWeather's rival The Weather Channel is doubling down on its climate coverage, adding new programming and experts to cover climate change more in-depth.
  • "We’ve heard loud and clear from our audience that our changing climate is an issue of great importance to them," says Nora Zimmett, Chief Content Officer and Executive Vice President, The Weather Channel.

The big picture: Data shows that while consumers say they want to learn more about climate coverage, reading habits don't often reflect that desire.

"The 'Dismissive' and 'Doubtful' segments of America have significantly decreased over the last 5 years," says Nora Zimmett, Chief Content Officer and at The Weather Channel, referring to polling from Yale and George Mason University.

By the numbers: Data from Stanford TV analyzer shows that cable news networks tend to overwhelmingly cover extreme weather events more than climate.

  • Some network newscasts still lead their nightly broadcasts with reports of major weather disasters, without ever mentioning climate change's role.
  • The polarization of climate change doesn't tend to play out as much in the cable news data, as climate change is still universally covered so infrequently on cable news.
  • When it comes to coverage of climate-related terms, all three of the major cable news networks tend to cover the topic somewhat equally. The same pattern holds true for coverage of weather-related terms.

What to watch: "What we’re seeing is network news move at a slower pace," Woods Placky says. "People are making a lot more connections (between weather and climate change) at local level than they are the national."

  • Weather departments at the national level are starting to take the lead in pushing for climate coverage, not political units, she notes.
  • NBC News, for example, launched a climate unit in 2019, that originated from its weather team. CNN is building a new team dedicated solely to climate coverage.

NOTE: Andrew was a guest on a Climate Central webinar discussing their new feature and climate journalism on Monday, but was not involved in its development.

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