The Earth May Be Warming, but It's Not Hot News

Lots of disaster coverage, but environmental causes get networks' cold shoulder

When the United Nations met in Montreal late last month to set up rules for the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, the conference received zero minutes—not even a passing mention—on the broadcast networks' weekday nightly newscasts.

When the Kyoto Conference was held in 1997, the Greenhouse Effect was statistically the top environmental story of the year, with almost an hour of coverage on evening news (56 minutes on ABC, CBS and NBC combined). Since then, as the planet has warmed, the issue has cooled. The annual reporting trends (in minutes) tell the story from 1998 through 2005 year-to-date: 46, 14, 40, 35, 12, 10, seven and a paltry three minutes, respectively, have been devoted to covering the Greenhouse Effect as a standalone story.

“Pressure from corporate interests” is the diagnosis from media activists including TV and movie producer Danny Schechter of Globalvision. At the recent NewsXchange symposium of international television-news executives in Amsterdam, Schechter argued that the removal of global warming from the mainstream-news agenda is evidence of the success and power of Big Oil and its related industries based on carbon extraction and consumption.

But one factor that neither Schechter nor Big Oil has counted on is the fascination that TV news has with natural disasters.

When video of twisters or mudslides or forest fires is repeated incessantly merely for the spectacle of it, then it is easy to decry such salacious use as weatherporn. When storm-chasing reporters mug for the cameras, it is easy to tease them for grandstanding. Think of the Today show's recent snafus, including Al Roker's being literally swept off his feet while covering Katrina.

Nevertheless, weather has made enormous news in 2005. Hurricane Katrina led the way. In the first 11 months of the year, natural disasters have accounted for 15% of the entire three-network nightly news hole. In the previous 17 years, the average annual weather coverage was less than 700 minutes. Already, 2005 has registered triple those levels, with part of December still to go.

As Katrina (1,044 minutes of news coverage year-to-date) was followed by Rita (136 minutes) and then Wilma (120 minutes), hurricane coverage necessarily turned to the causes of such an intense season. So while global warming may have failed to register as a newsworthy standalone topic, it certainly qualifies as a major angle in coverage of headline-grabbing storms.

As global warming causes sea levels to rise, experts believe humans living in coastal communities will be increasingly vulnerable to ocean-borne catastrophes—either storms like Katrina or tidal waves like the tsunami that killed tens of thousands around the Indian Ocean. The tsunami attracted 378 minutes of coverage (156 in 2004 and 222 in 2005).

Environmental activists warn those living near the coast that their future looks flimsy as Bangladesh's. When historians look back at 2005, they may see the tsunami and Katrina as the first two major events of the Age of Global Warming.

The environment per se is a difficult beat for television news to cover. The possible consequences of poor policy decisions are speculative, gradual and long term.

But the intense coverage of natural disasters this year has demonstrated the sense in which the environment is, finally, newsworthy once again. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams underscored how huge this entire beat is when he offered his nomination for 2005 Person of the Year to Time magazine.

He named Mother Nature.