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Media Matters

ABC's History of Poor Climate Coverage Doesn't Bode Well for the Next Presidential Primary Debate

Good news: There are a few easy ways the moderators can make the climate crisis a substantive and informative part of the debate.

Although broadcast TV news generally does a subpar job of covering climate change, ABC has fared considerably worse than its counterparts, airing less climate coverage than CBS and NBC every year since 2013, according to a Media Matters study. (Photo: Ceci Freed / Media Matters)

Although broadcast TV news generally does a subpar job of covering climate change, ABC has fared considerably worse than its counterparts, airing less climate coverage than CBS and NBC every year since 2013, according to a Media Matters study. (Photo: Ceci Freed / Media Matters)

During an election cycle in which voters have made climate change a top-tier issue, ABC’s poor record of climate reporting makes it an unsatisfactory choice to co-host the presidential primary debate on September 12.

Although broadcast TV news generally does a subpar job of covering climate change, ABC has fared considerably worse than its counterparts, airing less climate coverage than CBS and NBC every year since 2013, according to a Media Matters study. Notably, two of the debate's moderators, George Stephanopoulos and David Muir, also anchor ABC’s two major news program, and those shows aired just over 10 minutes of combined climate coverage in 2018, far behind CBS’ and NBC’s news programs.

ABC has continued this trend, largely ignoring major climate-related stories in 2019:

  • Just last week, Media Matters found that out of the 73 segments ABC ran about Hurricane Dorian, none mentioned that climate change has increased the intensity, the frequency, and possibly the duration of extreme weather events like Dorian. In fact, ABC’s only mention of climate change during this period was in a segment about Prince Harry’s travel sustainability project.
  • In July, the network also almost entirely failed to connect climate change to the nation’s first major heat wave of the summer, which affected close to one-third of the population, set numerous one-day temperature records, and claimed at least six lives.
  • A Media Matters analysis conducted in May found that ABC’s World News Tonight spent more time reporting on the birth of the British royal baby Archie in the week after he was born than covering climate change during the entirety of 2018.
  • Media Matters found that not one of the 11 segments ABC’s weekday morning and evening news programs ran in March about the bomb cyclone and subsequent catastrophic flooding in the Midwest mentioned that climate change influences such aberrant and extreme weather events. 

Moderators must step up and do their jobs, now

On August 22, the Democratic National Committee’s resolutions committee rejected a resolution to sponsor a climate debate. A climate debate would have helped voters learn where the candidates stand on potential solutions, motivated candidates to articulate clear plans for climate action, and ensured that debate moderators don't give climate short shrift as they have done in years past. While dedicated “town halls” on climate have been announced since the DNC's decision, that format’s limitations and challenges mean that debate moderators still bear the responsibility for engaging the candidates in a meaningful discussion of the climate crisis.

And unfortunately, this presidential election cycle isn’t off to a promising start when it comes to discussion of climate action and policy. The climate crisis was the topic of 9.5% of questions during the two-night Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN on July 30 and 31. During the two-night debate hosted by NBC in late June, only 5.8% of the questions were about climate change. 

These numbers are only slightly better than those of the 20 presidential primary debates in 2015 and 2016, when a mere 1.5% of the questions were about climate change and ABC moderators failed to ask a climate question in either the network’s Democratic or Republican debate.

There are a few ways that ABC’s moderators can ensure the climate crisis receives the substantial attention it deserves. These include asking multiple questions about climate change and giving all of the candidates a chance to weigh in, asking specific questions about candidates’ plans and proposed solutions, and helping voters understand the differences between the candidates' climate plans. It’s also important for moderators to avoid: framing climate change as a narrow political issue, fixating on the cost of taking action to stem the climate crisis without mentioning the potential costs of inaction, and letting the candidates get away with lies or distortions. 

Climate change is an existential threat that demands urgent and immediate action to stave off the worst consequences. Without a dedicated climate debate, moderators at the upcoming general debates must begin making the climate crisis a primary focus. Hopefully tonight’s debate moderators from ABC and Univision will take this opportunity to give the climate crisis the attention it deserves.

Evlondo Cooper

Evlondo Cooper

Evlondo Cooper is a senior writer with the climate and energy program at Media Matters.

Ted MacDonald

Ted MacDonald

Ted MacDonald is a researcher with the climate and energy program at Media Matters, where he has worked since June 2018.

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