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News outlets went all in on Maui fire coverage. But did they miss a key part of the story?


By Oliver Darcy, Jon Passantino and Liam Reilly, CNN

(CNN) — Thousands of heat records broken. Oceans at hot tub levels. Mass coral bleaching. Extraordinary wildfires. Earth’s hottest month on record.

It has been a summer of unprecedented heat across the globe, the alarming effect of a rapidly warming world kindled by fossil fuels. But despite decades of warnings from scientists who have long predicted that human-caused climate change would bring dire consequences, news organizations are still struggling to connect the dots in their daily coverage.

That is according to several climate experts who spoke to Reliable Sources and leveled criticism at how the crisis sweeping the planet is being covered by major media institutions.

“The media’s climate reporting has improved recently, but most news organizations are still not giving the accelerating crisis anything like the amount and urgency of coverage the story deserves,” said Mark Hertsgaard, the executive director of the global journalist consortium Covering Climate Now.

Hertsgaard isn’t alone in the sentiment. Climate change coverage has progressed leaps and bounds in recent years. Newsrooms have become far more cognizant about tying extreme weather events, like flash flooding and heat waves, to the larger trend. But still, there is considerable room for improvement.

“Especially in the United States, most TV news reports on the ferocious heat and other weather extremes afflicting millions of people this summer have not even mentioned the words ‘climate change,’” Hertsgaard said. “The science is unequivocal on that connection and leaving it out leaves audiences not just uninformed but misinformed.”

The unprecedented wind-whipped wildfire that devastated the island of Maui last week, killing more than 100 people, has received high volumes of attention from major media outlets, which have gone to remarkable lengths to gather reporting from the scene. But, according to research from the progressive watchdog Media Matters, only 4% of television news segments about the disaster, during a two-day period starting on August 9, tied the catastrophe to climate change.

More alarmingly, perhaps, of the only eight segments that mentioned climate change during this particular window on television, all of them came from CNN and MSNBC. CNN mentioned climate change three times and MSNBC five times, according to Media Matters. ABC News, CBS News, and NBC News did not tie the fires to climate change in any of the 35 segments that aired. (Of course, it’s worth noting that many of these outlets have been drawing this connection on their digital platforms.)

Michael Mann, the presidential distinguished professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania, told Reliable Sources that he fears news organizations do not cover the climate crisis enough, outside extreme weather events.

“Many media outlets still treat climate as a niche issue, giving it very little coverage except when an unprecedented bout of extreme weather takes place, or a major new report comes out,” he said.

News organizations could take a page out of their playbook for covering politics, where singular events are often tied to broader trends. When covering the various indictments against Donald Trump, journalists are quick to point out that they are part of a broader campaign the disgraced former president and his allies waged against the US democratic system.

Max Boykoff, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, agreed. Boykoff argued that wall-to-wall coverage of Trump-related developments “displaces stories that deserve attention about climate change and global warming.” Broadcast news outlets, he suggested, should treat the issue as a far more grave threat, launching shows devoted to covering climate change and its far-reaching effects on everyday life.

“The best climate coverage pairs human stories with the stories in the data and science. It informs the audience, teaching them something new while taking them on a journey,” said Peter Girard, director of communications at Climate Central.

And while there is still deep political polarization and misinformation around the causes of climate change, with polls showing Republicans far less likely to believe that human actions are the root cause, reporting on the extreme effects unfolding before our very eyes — and not in the distant future — can make clear the connection and inform audiences on the critical issue that requires urgent action to avert far worse consequences.

“People are realizing that climate change is driving many of the changes they are experiencing in their local community — from crazier weather and worsening air quality to more coastal floods and changing planting seasons — but they have questions,” Girard said. “Why is this happening? What can be done to change things? The media has an opportunity to dive deeper into the story and answer their audience’s questions.”

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