Media Avoid Climate Context In Wildfire Coverage

An analysis from Media Matters on the frequency of climate change references within news coverage of the recent Western wildfires. The report also includes perspectives from scientists on whether journalists should communicate the link between climate change and wildfire risk.

Media Matters prepared the report based on a study of major news outlet coverage of wildfires from April 1 – June 30, 2012.


While fire experts, for the most part, recommend that journalists convey the link between climate conditions and wildfire risk, major television and print outlets largely ignored climate change in their coverage of recent wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico and other Western states.


Studies show that the frequency of wildfires and length of the wildfire season are increasing due to climate change.

Western states are particularly vulnerable, including Pacific Northwest and forested regions of the Rockies and the Sierra.

A mere 3% of news reports on Western wildfires mentioned climate change, including 1.6% of TV segments and 6% of print articles.

Seven of nine fire experts contacted by Media Matters agreed journalists should explain the relationship between climate change and wildfires.

  • Those who agreed said that journalists should explain how climate change exacerbates wildfire risk.
  • Those who disagreed felt that regional variations made it difficult to draw broad conclusions about climate-related impacts on wildfires.

Quotes from the fire experts cited in the analysis include:

Media should communicate that fires "are a glimpse into a more common future if carbon emissions continue to rise."
— Dr. Steven W. Running, director of the Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group at the University of Montana

Failing to draw connections encourages "view that each disaster is an independent event due to random choice."
—Dr. Mark A. Cochrane of the Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence at South Dakota State University

"It is critical that media coverage of wildfires brings the topic of climate change to the fore."
—Dr. Meg Krawchuk of the Landscape and Conservation Science Research Group at Simon Fraser University in British Colombia

Photo via (cc) Flickr user The National Guard

Date: 2012
Organization: Media Matters
Strategic Approach: Engagement, Framing, Other
Organization: Media Matters
Strategic Approach: Engagement, Framing, Other

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