Tax on Carbon: Do Solutions Stand a Chance If the Media Never Covers Them?

August 11, 2014

Planet’s burning up, and I’m seeing red.

In the last 5 years, not one of the broadcast networks–ABC, CBS or NBC–Covered the Topic of carbon tax on their nightly news shows, and only CBS reported on cap and trade, with a single segment in that entire period. The concept behind both–putting a price on carbon emissions as incentive to curtail them–is favored by many as the best method to reduce emissions and help slow global warming.

That’s right.  On the major network’s news: carbon tax 0, cap and trade 1.  In 5 years.

Meanwhile, there was no shortage of footage on extreme weather–floods, fires, tornadoes, snowstorms, etc.–on those same shows.

Those reports, along with a sprinkling of others on climate change, have, no doubt, increased awareness that it is real. But repeated coverage of a problems effects will not, alone, lead to policy change. So in my opinion, the answer to the question in the title is no, solutions don’t have a chance if the media doesn’t cover them, especially given the current intractability of congress.

Think about it. Without coverage of solutions to problems, a void of information is created. That opens the door wider for legislators to politicize and hijack discussion of solutions, something they’re already good at. Then, when polls reflect fragmented opinion of an uninformed public, politicians use that as cover to do nothing, and nothing gets done.

In June, there was a stir when former treasury secretary Henry Paulson came out in favor of a carbon tax in a NYT Opinion piece.  This was news because Paulson is a republican who was appointed by President Bush and republican legislators have been against taxing carbon.  He isn’t the first prominent republican to call for one though, there have been many from George Shultz (sec. of state under Reagan) to Christine Todd Whitman (former EPA head).  And the economic case has been solidly made–from revenue-neutral, efficiency/cost benefits cited, to 2.1M new jobs / 33% polution reduction / in 10 years (REMI study), to the proven successes of cap-and-trade programs.

And yet, despite the fact that May and June were the hottest months on record for the planet and the steady stream of storms, heat waves and extreme weather raged on, congress has done nothing.

Having recently discovered a great news video search tool, Internet TVNews Archive, I decided to use it to evaluate coverage of this topic by the broadcast networks.

I don’t typically watch the ABC, CBS & NBC news shows (except maybe on weekends), and had been ignoring them for lack of time and to the detriment of ATD project integrity.  They are important because, according to Pew Research, “over the course of a month”, 65% of US adults watch network news, and “an average of” 22.6 million tune in nightly to 1 of the big 3, — higher numbers than for any other station. Needless to say, I am ecstatic over finding TVNews Archive*. (See Pew & TVNews Archive links below.)

So, after putting the search tool through some paces to satisfy me that it works*, I cast a deep net.  For each of the 3 networks, I plugged in the terms “carbon tax” and “tax on carbon”, going back 5 years to July 2009, the earliest archive year.  The results:

Search:  “carbon tax”, “tax on carbon”;  5 years
ABC   5 hits:    2-GMA, 1-This Week, 1-Breaking News, 1-Nightline (2013 most recent)
CBS   5 hits:    all local news (2013 most recent)
NBC  12 hits:    mostly local news (2014 most recent)

Thus, in the past 5 years, not 1 of the major broadcast networks covered the subject of carbon tax on their signature nightly show- the shows that garner those 65% and 22.6M viewership stats.

I then widened the net to include the terms “cap and trade” and “carbon sequestration”, other proposed emissions remedies, and again searched the same stations and period of time.

“Carbon sequestration” got 0 hits for ABC & CBS, and only 1 on NBC for local news. So, again, 0 hits on the nightly news shows for all 3 networks.

“Cap and trade” had many more (ABC-106, CBS-97, NBC-115) but spread across other news shows, with none on the big nightly news except for CBS, which scored a single hit with its interview of Al Gore in 2009.  (**Note below.)

Summary of entire broadcast networks search (except last line), last 5 years:

Search term  (last 5 yrs.)                          ABC                CBS              NBC
“carbon tax” or “tax on carbon”                  5                    5                  12
“cap and trade”                                         106                  97                115
“carbon sequestration”                                0                    0                    1
All above terms, nightly news only           0                    1                    0

Narrowing the search to the last 1.5 years (since January 1, 2013) yielded:

Search term  (last 1.5 yrs.)                        ABC               CBS               NBC
“carbon tax” or “tax on carbon”                  1                    1                   2
“cap and trade”                                           12                  18                   8
“carbon sequestration”                                0                    0                   0
All above terms, nightly news only           0                    0                    0

To get a sense of context and scale for the ABC, CBS & NBC numbers, I searched all 24 archived stations (see list at end), for the last 5 and 1.5 years respectively (***Note below):

Search term                                         All (5 yrs.)               All (1.5 yrs.)
“carbon tax”/“tax on carbon”                 2,307                         1,042
“cap and trade”                                       9,796                         1,172
“carbon sequestration”                             150                              41

For a more direct comparison, I narrowed the networks down to 2 specific ones (CNN, PBS), and searched for just the last 1.5 years, getting:

Search term  (1.5 yrs.)                          CNN               PBS
“carbon tax”/“tax on carbon”                 20                  79
“cap and trade”                                        25                  91
“carbon sequestration”                             0                    2

So, on the subject of taxing carbon, both CNN and PBS had substantially more coverage in a 1.5 year period, than the broadcast networks over a much longer, 5 year period.

Careening to the other end of the spectrum from specific carbon solutions, I went general.  I searched for “carbon emission”, “greenhouse gases”, “global warming”, “climate change” and “extreme weather”, non-solution environmental terms.  And this time I limited it to just the nightly news shows of the 3 networks, again for the last 1.5 years.

Search  (1.5 yrs.)           ABC World News     CBS Evening News     NBC Nightly News
“carbon emission”                   1                                     2                                    3
“greenhouse gases”                 2                                     8                                    3
“global warming”                   10                                     5                                    9
“climate change”                    17                                   34                                  43
“extreme weather”               102                                  20                                  28

The numbers show a clear pattern: the more general the search term, the more hits on network news.  Nothing beats dramatic videos of torrential downpours, raging fires, highway pileups, tornado swaths of destruction and other heartbreaking stories of loss, to make a point. And, again, no doubt they have some impact.

But when it comes to reporting on solutions, 1 news segment for 3 major networks, in 5 years, is beyond outrageous.  How can we form an opinion, make our positions known, and change our lot in this democracy if the media doesn’t report on actual, workable solutions–solutions that need to be enacted by congress, whose members we elect?

Information drives people.  People vote and drive polls.  Polls and voting drive action.

Reader, resist the temptation to remain cynical, assuming there is nothing you can do. Little by little, we citizens have seen the only power afforded us in the Constitution, our vote, erode. It is time we demand the media live up to their duty as The Fourth Estate. It is time to make them understand–they do not work for corporate interests, they work for us!

ABC, CBS and NBC:  Cover The Topic of solutions to climate change.

It’s.  Your.  Job.

*                *                *                *                *                *                *

*Note: The TVNews Archive database may have data gaps, though none were uncovered in the use of it for this blog. In addition, emails were sent to each network informing them of the content in this blog, and requesting verification of it.  (more info)

**Note: This “cap and trade” archive search produced 4 hits for each networks nightly news- all mere references in the context of either political campaigns or the legislative environment, so I did not count them.

***Note: There was some overlap with the 2 ‘carbon tax’ terms, and also with the same show being re-aired in 2 time zones, but both seemed infrequent for the non-broadcast networks.  Any such overlaps for the broadcast network news 1.5 year search results were caught and filtered out, as well as the 5 year, “carbon tax”/”tax on carbon” results. Also, except for the broadcast networks, no attempt was made to verify the actual substance of topic coverage- there were just too many.

Additional Links:
PEW Data,
TVNews Archive Network List

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