How the American Media Flunked Wildfire Reporting 101

According to a new report, a very small percentage of wildfire coverage mentioned global warming.

Wildfire Coverage climate change

Way to go CNN! (Photo: Media Matters)

Sal holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

“Yes, it’s highly likely.”

This is what climatologist Kevin Trenberth told me in June when I asked him if climate change contributed to 2012’s Waldo Canyon Fire, which incinerated 346 homes in the suburbs of Colorado Springs, Colorado. (You can read that harrowing story here).

As a group, climatologists are generally reluctant to blame any one single fire on climate change. But more and more of them, like Trenberth, are openly declaring that manmade global warming absolutely ripens the conditions in which longer burning, more frequently occurring, and larger-sized wildfires can grow.

So that’s the good—we want, we need, scientists to continue to level with us about climate change. The bad is just how much we need these truth-speaking scientists, given the appalling job the American media is doing at connecting the climate-to-wildfire dots.

Between April and July 2013, Media Matters found that just four percent of television reports and nine percent of print stories mentioned climate change when reporting wildfires. Four percent! Nine percent! I mean, c’mon, guys!

And this is an improvement from 2012, when six percent of wildfire print coverage mentioned climate change, which was four percent higher than television stories on these disasters. Uggh.

Thomas W. Swetnam, of the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, was brutal in his assessment:

Given the facts that year after year we are breaking century (or longer) records in wildfire area burned in the western US, and the warming trends are clear and as expected, the lack of any mention of anthropogenic climate change even with caveats is, in my view, irresponsible and bad journalism.

A July 3 Associated Press story, one of the few to state that climate change is a contributing cause of wildfires, painted the picture like this:

So far this year, more than 2.1 million acres have burned in wildfires, more than 113 million people in the U.S. were in areas under extreme heat advisories last Friday, two-thirds of the country is experiencing drought, and earlier in June, deluges flooded Minnesota and Florida.

"This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level," said Jonathan Overpeck, professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona. "The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about."

Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in fire-charred Colorado, said these are the very record-breaking conditions he has said would happen, but many people wouldn't listen. So it's I told-you-so time, he said.

Click here for a full breakdown of the reportorial injustice.

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