COVID-19 is changing the media landscape on climate— hopefully for the better.

Climate and energy media researcher Ted MacDonald sheds light on which climate stories are making the cut.

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If you have been following this newsletter over the past few weeks, or other outlets reporting on climate and accountability during the coronavirus pandemic, you already have a good sense of how polluters and their allies are taking full advantage of this moment to push through their destructive agendas, knowing the rest of the world can’t fight back. 

You also might have noticed that this coverage isn’t exactly mainstream. Why are certain climate stories on everyone’s tongue while others are missing in action? 

The issue is a complex one, so we called in an expert: Ted MacDonald from Media Matters for America, a nonprofit research and information center that monitors and corrects misinformation in U.S. media outlets. Here’s what he had to say.

What does climate coverage look like in the midst of a pandemic?

In the major print and TV outlets, climate has definitely taken a backseat to coronavirus. There’s a group that tracks climate coverage out of the University of Colorado, and they found a huge decrease of that coverage in March compared to February. There have been quite a few stories about how coronavirus has led to a huge increase in air quality in cities and states all over the world, and there has been good writing on the parallels between coronavirus and climate change — so things like the ignored warnings, the catastrophic effects, the disproportionate impacts on low-income and minority communities, and the need to take collective action to help solve the issue. Climate was also an issue in the recent stimulus bill, with potential bailouts to oil companies, and I saw that get coverage as well. Climate reporters are really continuing to chug along on their beats — there’s been good reporting on things like the fossil fuel industry’s ties to plastic bag ban reversals, and of course the Trump administration and the fossil fuel industry quietly moving forward with their polluting agenda.

One thing I’ll note is that Fox News is covering coronavirus a lot like how they’ve covered climate change: a lot of the same arguments that have been used to dismiss climate change being used to dismiss or downplay the virus. Recently they’ve been obsessively lying about the Green New Deal too, saying it was a part of the recent stimulus bill. That’s just not true. 

In a recent piece you co-wrote with Evlondo Cooper, you said that the lack of coverage of regulatory rollbacks and other attempts by polluters to capitalize on the COVID-19 crisis was “journalistic malpractice.” Can you tell us what you found in your research, and why you decided to categorize it that way?

Talking about the research first, we found that while climate reporters and some local and legacy news outlets were covering these rollbacks and pro-polluter actions, there was near silence from the broadcast and cable TV networks. There were a whole host of issues that we looked at, and the only ones that received any coverage on TV were the EPA basically giving companies a free reign to pollute, and the weakening of Obama-era vehicle emissions standards. So things like the EPA politicizing scientific research, the Keystone XL pipeline getting the go-ahead [Note: construction on this pipeline has since been halted after a key permit was cancelled], assaults on free speech by criminalizing the protest of fossil fuel pipelines, oil and gas drilling continuing unabated, those things got no coverage on the TV networks. There have been even more actions that have occurred since our piece came out, and those have not been talked about on TV news either. 

As far as journalistic malpractice, I think we can categorize it that way because lives are really in danger right now. When you have non-essential projects like the Keystone XL pipeline moving forward, that puts both communities and workers more at risk of getting coronavirus. These actions are actively harming people and the environment, and making climate change worse.

Climate change is the next crisis, and Trump and these companies are using coronavirus to get their actions passed under cover of darkness. Considering all the times the fossil fuel industry has really hamstrung and downplayed climate efforts, it’s really important for the general public to know about that.

I hear you talking about a divide in media outlets that are covering these changes thoroughly and ones that aren’t. What’s that about?

A lot of non-climate journalists have openly said that what prevents them from reporting on climate are things like lack of time for on-the-ground reporting, lack of time or space to cover climate change in a very fast-paced news cycle, and just a general lack of understanding of climate science. Right now, coronavirus is the main story, and it should be, but I also think that now is the time to talk about climate change. Lives are being upended, we’re experiencing immense economic and emotional suffering, people are recognizing the limits of our current economic structure and the need to really address the flaws in our system right now. And these are the things we need to do to address climate change as well. The legacy media outlets should be recognizing this, and they need to get better at telling these stories.

What incentives does the media operate under when it comes to climate?

Ratings and corporate ownership play a role. Back in the summer of 2018, Chris Hayes called climate change a “ratings killer,” so I think that has turned a lot of folks off from covering it. But polls show that now this is an issue of really expanding importance for voters, especially young people and voters of color. Climate change encompasses a lot of issues right now. You can connect climate change to the economy, and to public health, and to national security, so it should be talked about through those lenses. 

What about the media’s treatment of fossil fuel giants — has that changed over time?

In 2004, a pretty influential study came out where researchers looked at mass media coverage of climate change from 1988-2002. They found that a little over half of the news stories that covered climate change included false balance — meaning, for instance, they would get a climate scientist to talk about climate change and then an industry shill to give the “other side,” as if both perspectives were of equal weight. That’s during a time when the scientific consensus on climate change was pretty clear.

In some articles I do still see more uncritical both-sides-ism, but I can say it’s definitely not as bad as it once was. There are a lot of independent outlets covering climate change in a more critical way now. Drilled News is doing a great job reporting on the fossil fuel industry and their attempts to really hamstring climate action. And the abuses of the fossil fuel industry are more exposed now than ever. InsideClimate News won a Pulitzer prize for their reporting on how ExxonMobil knew about the climate issue since the 70s, but actively tried to downplay and dismiss it, spending billions of dollars to do so. I think that made other media outlets more aware of the problems with the industry, and I think they’re less willing now to want to give them credit.

You mentioned earlier that some of the more mainstream outlets are focusing their climate coverage on the ways this pandemic is, at least for now, lowering emissions and increasing air quality. Why is that an attractive story for them? Is that story accurate?

It’s an easy story to cover. We know with climate change that we have to rapidly decrease our carbon emissions to avoid the most catastrophic effects, and it’s easy now to cover the fact that emissions are seeing a huge decline in 2020, perhaps the biggest decline since WWII. I also think it’s being framed as a silver lining with coronavirus. There’s just a lot of awfulness going around right now, and seeing carbon emissions fall… I think it’s a story of hope. But while it’s accurate that carbon emissions are falling and it’s accurate to report that, I think there’s a real danger in how the story is framed.

We’ve seen it be weaponized already by the right wing media. A few weeks ago, Laura Ingraham on Fox News did a segment on it that really twisted a lot of the facts. This is absolutely not the way we want emissions to fall or to solve climate change — by implementing mass lockdowns, looking at hundreds of thousands of deaths, mass economic destruction and displacement. These things are certainly not what’s being envisioned by people clamoring for mass climate action. I think that history also shows that after periods of recession or depression, carbon emissions will rapidly increase again. Additionally, in these periods of turmoil, efforts to address climate change generally fall to the bottom of the to-do list. There’s a real danger of us seeing a setback to addressing climate change once we get out of the pandemic. All of these issues need to be taken into consideration when the media reports on how coronavirus has affected air quality.

You mentioned that this was a story of hope. Is it the media’s responsibility to provide hope to people right now? 

I think it’s the media’s responsibility to report the facts. I can’t speak for climate reporters, but what I can say is that accurately telling the climate story includes reporting on climate solutions, which data shows does give people a sense of hope and does inspire them to action. I think there’s a lot of that to report on right now. 

Especially when we’re talking about climate solutions, why is it so important — now more than ever — for the media to hold big polluters accountable in their coverage?

According to scientists, we have a limited time frame: a decade or less to reduce the burning of fossil fuels in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. We’re currently on pace for about 3 degrees of warming, Celsius; that’s a death sentence for millions of people and would cause irreversible damage around the globe. In spite of this, you have fossil fuel companies using the coronavirus to push through all of these deregulatory actions that they've always wanted, and that will allow them to emit and pollute more. They’re likely going to get money from the slush fund controlled by Steve Mnuchin, who’s a climate skeptic. The coal industry also is asking for economic relief to stay afloat, and they’re doing that while they cut the Black Lung Trust Fund that’s helping former miners out. These actions help them increase their profits but they really screw over the general public. We know that these fossil fuel companies have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies for decades while also having a stranglehold over American politics.

We’re in a moment right now where the actions that we take to address coronavirus could have far-reaching implications for how we address climate change. It’s time for the media to accurately report on this, and to call out the fact that the fossil fuel companies are trying to obstruct climate action right now.

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And a tip: check out for the latest ways oil, gas and coal giants are profiteering from the coronavirus pandemic and worsening the threat.

Stay safe and stay informed. Until next time.