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From Australia to the United States, the media must do better in covering the climate crisis

This post includes two reports: coverage of a Senate inquiry hearing this week into media diversity, and cross-publication of a Covering Climate Now collaboration article on media silence about the current climate crisis in the United States, in which journalist Mark Hersgaard writes:

In two months, world leaders will gather in Glasgow for one of the most important diplomatic meetings in history.

TheCOP26 summit will go a long way toward deciding whether humanity preserves a livable climate on this planet. From now to the summit and beyond, journalism has got to do better.”


Melissa Sweet writes:

Reports that News Corp Australia and its Sky News Channel plan to abandon their longstanding hostility to climate action should be viewed with extreme scepticism, according to former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Presenting on 6 September to a Senate inquiry into media diversity in Australia, Rudd said the move – which has been welcomed by a big advertiser, Coles –  should be understood as a form of greenwashing.

“Leopards don’t change their spots,” he said, citing a long history of climate denialism disseminated by News Corp Australia outlets.

Rudd said News Corp was seeking to promote themselves to a “certain part of the media market” by placing the story in Nine newspapers, “while at the same time unleashing the dogs of war…across the mass media market to continue to fuel fear in the community about any government or alternative government which proposes substantive climate change policy action”.

In his presentation, Rudd reiterated calls for a Royal Commission into the dominance of News Corp in the Australian media landscape, which he said threatened the “lifeblood of Australian democracy”.

In his submission to the inquiry, Rudd said:

Australia’s democracy is at a crossroads. We can either continue letting our media landscape become more concentrated, more monopolised, more polarised and more susceptible to disinformation. Or we can chart a new course. I urge the latter.”

Rudd described the market power of Sky News, with a subscriber base of 1.1 million on YouTube – “a platform known for facilitating political radicalisation” – as bigger than the 7 News, 9 News and 10 News subscription bases combined. Sky News is also broadcast free-to-air across 30 regional markets across every state and territory.

His submission also said Murdoch’s “assault on free speech” included “the systematic denigration of Australia’s universities”, and that the Murdoch media’s campaign against academia transcends its attacks on individual academics, casting doubt on institutions of higher education as a whole.

He said:

In part, this is because the universities represent an alternative source of authoritative knowledge to Murdoch publications. But the Murdoch media also has a commercial interest in Australians being less educated, since education renders consumers more able to see through their attempts to sow disinformation.

Murdoch’s campaign against the universities has been the deliberate prosecution of a political agenda, in partnership with the current conservative government, which also seeks to destroy the universities’ public funding base.

University administrators understand the wrath of the Murdoch media; it is telling that so few university studies investigate the extent and influence of Murdoch’s monopoly, relative to its influence over Australian life. They fear for their reputation.”

In his submission, Rudd said Murdoch outlets “frequently and uncritically publish pseudoscience that variously claims climate action is unnecessary, too costly or a stalking horse to establish a new socialist world order”.

“Because of Murdoch’s monopoly influence,” Rudd wrote, “Australia is now one of the few countries on earth where lasting, meaningful climate change action has not been possible. Murdoch has exercised a similar influence in the United States.”

Meanwhile, a leading US journalist Mark Hersgaard has raised concerns about “climate silence” in much of the US media coverage of the public health crises now unfolding across several states in the wake of Hurricane Ida.

The US Department of Health and Human Services has declared public health emergencies for New York, New Jersey, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Croakey readers made be interested to note the DHHS comment that: “Recent natural disasters have demonstrated the importance of ensuring accessibility to health and human services for everyone living in the United States, including individuals in need of interpretation and translation services. To help first responders provide on-the-ground language assistance and communicate effectively during disasters and in accordance with federal civil rights laws, the HHS Office for Civil Rights offers a plain language checklist – PDF, including recommendations, specific action steps, resources, and tips such as to how to identify language needs in a disaster-impacted community to effectively utilising interpreters.”

The article below was first published in The Guardian on 2 September under the headline, ‘Why won’t US TV news say ‘climate change’?’.


Mark Hertsgaard writes:

The climate emergency is exploding in various parts of the world this week, but climate silence inexcusably continues to rein in much of the United States media.

Hurricane Ida has left more than a million people in Louisiana without running water, electricity or air conditioning amid a heat index topping 100F. The Caldor fire destroyed hundreds of houses and forced mass evacuations around Lake Tahoe in California. Abroad, vast swaths of Siberia were ablaze while drought-parched Madagascar suffered what a United Nations official called the first famine caused entirely by climate change.

Painstaking scientific research has established that the climate crisis escalates these kinds of extreme weather. In other words, people can now watch the emergency unfold in real time on their TV and cellphone screens.

The problem is that most viewers won’t make that connection, because most stories don’t contain the words “climate change”.

Six of the biggest commercial TV networks in the US – ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC and MSNBC – ran 774 stories about Ida from 27 to 30 August, an analysis by the watchdog group Media Matters found. Only 34 of those stories, barely 4 percent, mentioned climate change.

My own survey of the coverage confirmed the trend. Viewers were shown powerful images – roofs torn off, block after block of houses submerged in floodwaters, first responders pulling weeping victims to safety. They heard plenty of numbers: Ida was a category 4 hurricane with wind speeds of 172 miles an hour and storm surges of 7ft to 11ft. But almost never were they told what was behind all this destruction.

It’s not as if making the climate connection is scientifically controversial or journalistically difficult, as a handful of exemplary stories demonstrated.

On NPR, the reporter Rebecca Hersher said that “climate change is basically super-charging this storm … As the Earth gets hotter because of climate change, the water on the surface of the ocean – it also gets hotter. So there’s more energy for storms like Ida to get really big and really powerful.”

On CBS This Morning, atop a graphic reading “Massive, fast-growing storms like Ida highlight climate crisis”, the meteorologist Jeff Berardelli pointed out that a hotter planet also means “you evaporate more moisture, the ground gets drier – we’re having the worst drought in 1,200 years in the west.”

In the Washington Post, the reporter Sarah Kaplan called Ida a “poster child for a climate change-driven disaster” and quoted the hurricane specialist Kerry Emmanuel of MIT saying: “This is exactly the kind of thing we’re going to have to get used to as the planet warms.”

Not just uninformed but misinformed

The vast majority of news coverage instead chose climate silence.

This amounts to nothing less than media malpractice.

Scientifically accurate reporting would not only link this extreme weather to the climate crisis, it would note that climate change is caused primarily by burning oil, gas and coal.

ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies have been lying for 40 years about their products causing dangerous climate change. Responsible journalism should tell the truth about what’s driving these terrible storms, fires and famine.

Broadcast television’s failure is especially egregious in that it’s still the leading news source for most people. (About 45 percent of Americans get most of their news from television, while 18 percent rely primarily on social media, according to the Pew Research Center.)

And it repeats the mistake TV news made while covering the extreme weather events of 2020. In the face of unprecedented fires in Australia and California (remember the orange skies over San Francisco?) and kindred calamities, only 0.4% of commercial TV stories mentioned the climate crisis, Media Matters found.

This kind of journalism leaves the public not just uninformed but misinformed. It gives the impression that these storms and fires are not only terrible (which, of course, is true) but also – to use a phrase that climate breakdown has made obsolete – they’re simply “natural” disasters.

They are not. Of course, hurricanes and wildfires were happening long before human-caused climate change emerged. The climate crisis, however, makes them significantly worse. As a Weather Channel segment on Ida explained, it’s not that “climate change caused the storm, but … that a warming world made Hurricane Ida more powerful”.

What’s odd is that plenty of journalists at big US news outlets know the climate crisis is an important story. And climate coverage had been improving. During the heatwave that scorched the Pacific Northwest in July, 38 percent of broadcast and cable news segments made the climate connection, Media Matters reported, as did about 30 percent of this summer’s wildfires coverage. So newsrooms have the ability to make the point when they choose to.

In two months, world leaders will gather in Glasgow for one of the most important diplomatic meetings in history. The COP26 summit will go a long way toward deciding whether humanity preserves a livable climate on this planet. From now to the summit and beyond, journalism has got to do better.


This article, first published in The Guardian is published as part of the global Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented collaboration involving hundreds of media outlets around the world. It is co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian.


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