|Chase Cain of NBC’s LX news service says he now sees it as his responsibility to make the connection between extreme weather and climate change, such as in the reporting above on California wildfires. Image: NBCLX via YouTube screenshot.
Feature: From TV Meteorologists, More Straight Talk About Climate Change
By Frank Mungeam
If I asked whether you have experienced an extreme weather event in the community where you report, in the past year, how would you answer?
When I posed that question at the start of a panel on climate change and extreme weather at the 2023 SEJ conference, it looked to me like every hand in the room was raised.
Climate change is a global threat. Yet it is also hyperlocal. In communities across the country, the increasing, and increasingly obvious, effects of climate change are tangible, personal and persuasive in ways that trump politics.
That’s where environmental journalists have what might be a surprising ally: their local TV meteorologist.
A recent survey by the climate teams at Yale and George Mason University examined “trusted messengers” of climate information across the political divide. The study found that only two information sources were trusted across the spectrum: NASA and TV meteorologists.
Built-in audience trust, reach
As extreme weather events become more frequent and more severe, local TV meteorologists are uniquely qualified to make the connection to climate change.
In addition to audience trust, they have large audience reach, especially during extreme weather events when viewers flock to their local TV news stations.
The meteorologist is also essentially
the “chief science officer” of the
newsroom, usually the only person
with an advanced science degree.
The meteorologist is also essentially the “chief science officer” of the newsroom, usually the only person with an advanced science degree.
They also have the visual storytelling skills — and the on-air graphics tools — to communicate this connection clearly.
There are now also tools that enable both meteorologists and others reporting on climate to make science-based attributions between weather changes and the underlying influence of climate change.
Climate Central, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on supporting journalists with resources, data and analysis recently released the Climate Shift Index, a tool that enables meteorologists and reporters to make direct attributions between weather anomalies and climate. [Editor’s Note: See SEJournal’s recent Reporter’s Toolbox on the Climate Shift Index.]
Climate Central meteorologist Lauren Casey explained that this tool now enables journalists to make direct attribution, for example, that a particular heat wave was “x times more likely” due to climate change.
Here’s an explanation of the science behind the tool.
Survey shows craving for climate coverage
The close relationship local TV meteorologists have with their audiences gives them a unique opportunity to have these conversations about climate change without triggering partisan divides.
Nelly Carreño, chief meteorologist for Univision-Dallas, put this to the test with her viewers. In just one week, she was able to get more than 500 of her viewers to complete a survey on climate change.
People might think of Texas as a “red” state, noted Carreño, but her viewers overwhelmingly agreed climate change was real, human-caused and getting worse.
A large majority said they’d been personally affected.
And, perhaps most significantly, a whopping 97% said they wanted Carreño to talk more about climate change in her weather segments. She even received 200-plus responses to an open-ended question asking for types of coverage that interested them, with solutions earning the most votes.
Carreño’s experience is supported by the data from studies like this one. It is also reflected in the Yale Climate Opinion Maps, which show, down to the county level for each county in the United States, Americans’ beliefs on climate change and their views on different climate responses.
A responsibility to report
Encouraged by both viewer feedback and this research, and equipped with attribution tools like the Climate Shift Index, TV meteorologists and reporters are leading the way in making more direct connections for local audiences between increasingly common and severe weather events and their climate change “fingerprint.”
Chase Cain, climate editor and reporter for NBCLX, said he was initially nervous about making such a strong connection. But based on the science, new attribution tools and feedback from his audiences, he now sees it as his responsibility.
Click on the video on the right for an example of how Cain reported on yet another of California’s wildfires.
Cain also brought climate change to the forefront in his coverage of a record-breaking flash flood in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
There’s an old saying in newsrooms — never let a crisis go to waste.
Local newsrooms’ metrics prove that extreme weather events drive audience engagement. These weather events are, unfortunately, becoming more common and more extreme. But they also represent an opportunity for those on the front lines of local reporting to make direct, scientifically supported attribution to climate change, helping their audiences better understand the connection between this planet-sized problem and its local effects.
[Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published by the Local Media Association. For more about connecting extreme weather and climate change, check out a panel (including an audio recording) on the subject from SEJ’s 2023 annual conference, which author Mungeam moderated and drew material from for this article. Read more about Climate Central’s Climate Shift Index and the science of climate attribution, plus see our Topic on the Beat: Climate Change page and our Climate Change Resource Guide, including its Climate Science 101 section.]
Frank Mungeam is director of the Local Media Association Covering Climate Collaborative, which provides editorial support, training and science tools to more than 35 leading local newsrooms across the country committed to humanizing and localizing the effects of climate change, and inclusively reporting on both the problem and effective responses. The collaborative welcomes local newsrooms committed to covering human-caused climate change and its solutions. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for information.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 23. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.