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Broadcast news networks are notoriously bad at covering the climate crisis, dedicating a vanishingly small amount of airtime — year after year — to the grave existential threat despite the many potential stories they could be running about it.
Their neglect of the climate crisis is on stark display in a new statistic: According to Media Matters for America, morning TV shows spent nearly as much time on Jeff Bezos’s space launch on July 20, 2021 as they did on the climate crisis in all of 2020.
The morning shows on broadcast networks combined spent 212 minutes covering Bezos’s space trip just on Tuesday alone, Media Matters researchers found. Meanwhile, in the entirety of last year, the shows spent a combined 267 minutes on the climate crisis.
Bezos’s space trip was 11 minutes long. By contrast, the climate crisis has been ongoing for decades and daily threatens the fabric of our society and the continued existence of our species, if it continues unabated.
Further, Bezos’s trip to space was largely a PR stunt, meant to garner excitement around the billionaire and his space company while also buying fawning coverage from news outlets. It comes at a time when billionaires have come under increased scrutiny for paying zero or fewer taxes than ordinary working people and progressives put forward the argument that nobody should be allowed to accrue as much wealth as people like the Amazon CEO.
As progressives argue, the space trip was wasteful and almost insulting to the Amazon workers, who, under Bezos, suffer terrible work conditions. “Amazon workers did pay for this — with lower wages, union busting, a frenzied and inhumane workplace, and delivery drivers not having health insurance during a pandemic,” wrote Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter.
And yet, judging by the amount of coverage that the morning broadcast shows dedicated to the Bezos flight versus the climate crisis, it would almost seem as though they’re of equivalent importance.
In fact, CNN recently bumped climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who was slated to discuss the climate crisis as Death Valley was hitting record high temperatures, in order to cover the other recent billionaire space stunt — businessman Richard Branson’s brief jaunt to the edge of space.
CNN’s decision to bump Hayhoe for Branson’s stunt “shows that cable news, and TV news as a whole, still largely continues to fail at grasping the climate crisis as the existential threat it is,” wrote Earther’s Molly Taft. “Instead, coverage prioritizes entertainment and sensationalism that keeps people watching the commercial breaks.”
What makes it especially frustrating too, Taft writes, is that TV news networks appear to be reaching a breakthrough with covering climate this year. Networks linked recent heat waves in the American West to climate change in 27 percent of segments, Media Matters research showed, and have improved coverage in recent months.
Mentioning the climate crisis in 27 percent of segments on the heat wave is still quite low, especially when researchers have found that it was almost certainly brought on and worsened by climate change.
Indeed, climate advocates have expressed frustration for years that broadcast news as a whole largely ignores the climate crisis. In 2019, according to Media Matters, broadcast news shows dedicated less than 1 percent of their reporting to the climate crisis.
That’s despite the fact that 2019 was a landmark year for the climate crisis as the second warmest year on record at the time. It’s now been bumped to third place, with 2020 tying for first place with 2016. And 2019 was even an improvement on 2018’s coverage, with networks having spent a combined 238 minutes on climate in 2019 versus only 142 minutes the year before.
Media analysts and climate communication researchers argue that broadcast news — and media at large — can make a difference with more urgent and frequent climate coverage. The American public is growing more and more concerned about the climate crisis despite a dearth of coverage from corporate news outlets, and that impact could be even higher if the networks dedicate the time and effort to cover it.