Why won't anyone ask why?
A Colorado journalist's analysis of local heatwave coverage reveals a systemic failure to inform.
Last week, millions of Coloradans experienced a heatwave unlike any they’d ever seen. The record-breaking event, exacerbated by climate change, was part of a larger stretch of unprecedented hot, dry weather in the American West.
The extreme heat was covered extensively by Colorado journalists, who took a variety of angles on the story. They explored economic impacts, health risks, and meteorological firsts. But how many of the stories mentioned why it was so hot in the first place?
Chase Woodruff, an environmental policy reporter for Colorado Newsline, decided to see for himself. For a few hours a day, he looked up as much Colorado-based coverage of the heatwave he could find, and logged in a spreadsheet whether it referenced climate change.
Chase’s final tally, which you can view in this Google spreadsheet, saw 149 local news stories written about the unprecedented hot temperatures, part of a larger heat wave that affected more than 50 million people across the U.S. last week. Only 6 of those stories mentioned climate change.
Put another way, only 4 percent of Colorado journalists covering the dangerous extreme weather in their communities told readers why it was happening. The other 96 percent covered it as if it were an act of God.
The systemic failure of news outlets to inform their readers about the climate crisis in real time is not new, nor exclusive to Colorado. During the deadly global heatwave of 2018, Media Matters analyzed 127 national cable news segments about it and found that only one explained its connection to climate change. National print and radio outlets did a bit better, but not much; NPR, for example, aired at least three stories in July 2018 mentioning the abnormal nature of extreme weather events across the country without explaining why.
So why aren’t reporters performing this basic duty? I posed this question to Chase in our interview, which I’ll send exclusively to paid subscribers tomorrow. I’m also in the process of sending e-mails to the reporters and editors of the Colorado coverage to ask them directly. Hopefully we’ll get some bites.
If we do get bites, though, I don’t imagine they’ll be much different than what I’ve seen and heard before. I asked NPR science editor Geoff Brumfiel, for example, about his desk’s climate omissions back in 2018. He said the reasons were based on journalistic caution.
Here’s our exchange as I wrote it in The New Republic:
“You don’t just want to be throwing around, ‘This is due to climate change, that is due to climate change.’” I suggested that journalists don’t need to determine whether an event was caused by climate change to make a climate connection—a journalist could merely say climate change makes extreme events such as these more likely. “It’s an interesting question if there should be boilerplate language [in extreme weather stories],” Brumfiel replied.
But for now, he said, NPR reporters must interview climate scientists before referencing the phenomenon, which is often not possible with breaking news. “You’re looking at the first-round reporting,” he said, noting that general assignment reporters or regional reporters—not science reporters—are usually the ones covering breaking weather events. “We don’t assume everything that happens is climate change, and you can make statements, but we take our reporting duties seriously.”
It’s possible NPR’s policy of requiring reporters to interview climate scientists before making basic scientific statements has changed in the last three years. (I’ll send Geoff a message and try to find out).
But this over-abundance of journalistic caution is likely one reason why so many news outlets are still ignoring climate in extreme weather stories. And though noble in principle, it’s a wholly illegitimate excuse in 2021. Literally hundreds, if not thousands of peer-reviewed studies say deadly heat waves are becoming more frequent as the climate warms. The unprecedented temperatures sweeping the American West are consistent with those studies. You don’t need a climate scientist to connect those dots. You just need a journalist.
Other than scientific illiteracy, the only other reason I am personally aware of for not including climate information in an extreme weather story in 2021 is fear. I will never forget, when I started this career, the backlash I used to get for mentioning an extreme weather event was made more likely by climate change. I’d be bombarded with accusations of insensitivity (“Now’s not the time for politics!”) and mischaracterizations of what I’d written (“This girl says climate change caused the hurricane!”). Their anger made me feel like I had done something really wrong. I never wanted to write a climate-focused weather story again.
I understand now that those reactions were merely symptoms of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long climate denial campaign—a campaign to make climate science too poisonous to touch. Because what are you really saying when you blame worsening weather extremes on global warming? You’re saying fossil fuels cause suffering and death. The industry cannot afford to have that printed in every newspaper in America, even if it happens to be the truth.
But journalism, as the saying goes, is about printing what someone else does not want printed. And right now, news outlets in Colorado are printing exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants. They’re probably doing it elsewhere too; Chase’s analysis is merely a microcosm of that much larger problem. But unlike climate change, it’s not a problem that has to get worse before it gets better. We all wanted a hot girl summer, but this is going to be a hot world summer; potentially one of the worst we’ve seen. It will be that way because of climate change. Imagine if every journalist in America were unafraid to state that fact.
And now for some related and relevant tweets
Catch of the Day:
If you liked yesterday’s article and want to know more about the shady climate behavior of electric utilities, Fish recommends you read this book by Leah Stokes.
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This is an example of climate silence, an (unfortunately) common situation. I wrote an article on this several years ago (see link below), quoting the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel, who wrote that silence "usually involves refusing to acknowledge the presence of things that actually beg for attention, thereby reminding us that conspiracies of silence revolve not around those largely unnoticeable matters we simply overlook, but, on the contrary, around those highly conspicuous matters we deliberately try to avoid.” The sociologist Kari Norgaard has also written an excellent book on this. You can read my full article (with citations to Zerubavel and Norgaard) here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00139157.2017.1374792?needAccess=true
I wonder if the lack of coverage of climate change in conventional journalism reflects a view that this is an "activist" issue, rather than a mainstream issue, and is therefore marginal. If that's true, then the obvious next step is to normalize the issue, to invite everyone to get behind it. But doing might require unloading all the added baggage that's accumulated into it: that it'll be resolved when you address Capitalism, racism, meat eating, etc, etc. I know that this suggestion will irritate most of your readers, and I'm even reluctant to put this thought forward because of the strong rebuke it will elicit, but maybe it's part of the reason why people don't want to touch it?