Sunday News Shows Have Interviewed Two Climate Scientists in Five Years

A group of senators want networks to dedicate more time to covering climate change, but weekend shows almost never invite scientists.

WASHINGTON - APRIL 26: (AFP OUT) Jon Meacham (C), editor of Newsweek magazine, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, Presidential Historian, listen to David Gregory (L) speak during a live taping of 'Meet the Press' at NBC April 26, 2009 in Washington, DC. Goodwin and Meacham spoke about President Obama's first 100 days as president of the United States. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet the Press)
National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick
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Jack Fitzpatrick
Jan. 16, 2014, 11:29 a.m.

As Sen­ate Demo­crats urge tele­vi­sion net­works to re­port more on glob­al warm­ing, one thing is miss­ing from the news cov­er­age of cli­mate change: sci­ent­ists.

Only two cli­mate-change sci­ent­ists were in­ter­viewed in 2013 on Sunday news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, ac­cord­ing to a study by Me­dia Mat­ters, a left-lean­ing me­dia watch­dog group. Those shows largely ig­nored the sub­ject last year but still man­aged to fea­ture four politi­cians and six me­dia fig­ures in their 2013 cov­er­age, the study said.

And those two sci­ent­ists, both in­ter­viewed on CBS’s Face the Na­tion, were the first in five years to be fea­tured on any of the Sunday shows, ac­cord­ing to the study.

Sunday talk shows are par­tic­u­larly im­port­ant to law­makers back­ing cli­mate-change le­gis­la­tion be­cause they help set the agenda for all na­tion­al me­dia, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

“If they cov­er it, then The New York Times is go­ing to cov­er it,” Sanders said.

Right now, Sanders said lim­ited dis­cus­sion about the is­sue on the Sunday shows is fail­ing to edu­cate the pub­lic. While sci­ent­ists have es­sen­tially reached a con­sensus on cli­mate change, the pub­lic is still di­vided, he said.

Sanders and eight Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors sent a let­ter Thursday to the heads of the four net­works, ask­ing for more cov­er­age of is­sues re­lat­ing to cli­mate change.

Net­works’ pref­er­ence for pun­dits over sci­ent­ists has caused the dis­cus­sion on cli­mate change to be­come hy­per-polit­ic­al, said Shauna Theel, Me­dia Mat­ters’ cli­mate and en­ergy pro­gram dir­ect­or.

“They want to show there’s still a de­bate,” Theel said. “You want to have both sides, some sort of con­flict. So it leads to pun­dits and politi­cians de­bat­ing cli­mate change, rather than say­ing it’s hap­pen­ing and that we’re agreed on the ba­sics of the sci­ence.”

Cli­mate-change cov­er­age was lim­ited over­all last year, the Me­dia Mat­ters study found. The Sunday shows covered the top­ic for less than half the time they did in 2009, when the “Cli­mateg­ate” email-hack­ing scan­dal sug­ges­ted that cli­mate-change sci­ent­ists had ma­nip­u­lated data.

CBS spent the most time cov­er­ing cli­mate change last year, ded­ic­at­ing about 52 minutes to the top­ic between the CBS Even­ing News and Face the Na­tion.

Nightly news shows covered the is­sue more fre­quently, and about half of their in­ter­views were with sci­ent­ists, ac­cord­ing to the study. That was mainly be­cause those shows in­cluded more seg­ments on ex­treme weath­er events like wild­fires, and they needed sci­ent­ists to ex­plain how cli­mate change af­fected those in­di­vidu­al events, Theel said.

Cable news chan­nel Al Jaz­eera Amer­ica at­trac­ted at­ten­tion in its first week on the air in Au­gust when it ded­ic­ated 24 minutes to cov­er­ing cli­mate change in a single day. But in the net­work’s lim­ited de­but, it could not have had the same im­pact as a ma­jor net­work. And law­makers who sup­port le­gis­la­tion ad­dress­ing cli­mate change won’t be happy un­til ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are cov­er­ing it in-depth.

“If we be­lieve in sci­ence,” Sanders said, “then I think that the most im­port­ant me­dia out­lets would be hav­ing a dis­cus­sion about the is­sue with the lead­ing ex­perts on the is­sue.”

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