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As thousands of athletes from around the world descended on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this summer to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics, broadcast and cable news programming missed a golden opportunity to discuss the incredible legacy of the legislative reform largely responsible for the growth and success of women’s sports in the United States and around the world -- Title IX.
One of the biggest stories coming out of the 2016 Summer Olympics was the sheer dominance of American athletes in general, and American women in particular. American swimmer Katie Ledecky and gymnast Simone Biles finished the games with four gold medals each (and five medals overall) and, at just 19 years old, they both are widely considered the most dominant athletes in their respective sports. Meanwhile, as the United States men’s basketball team struggled before coalescing in the gold medal match, the American women’s team blasted every opponent en route to a sixth consecutive Olympic championship.
According to The New York Times, the United States brought home 121 medals from Rio, far outpacing China (70) and Great Britain (67) for first place, and became the first nation in 40 years to lead all nations in each medal category: gold, silver, and bronze. As was the case in 2012, more than half of that total medal haul (61) was won by American women, whose unparalleled athletic success would have been unlikely without the unique progressive legacy of the Title IX provision in federal education policy, which prevents sex discrimination in federally funded programs like school sports. From the Times:
The United States is one of the few countries to embed sports within the public education system. And equal access to sports for women comes with legal protections, gained with the education amendment known as Title IX in 1972 and the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act in 1978.
About one of every two American girls participates in sports in high school. Of the 213 American medalists in individual and team sports in Rio, according to the [United States Olympic Committee], nearly 85 percent participated in university-funded sports.
“Those things don’t exist elsewhere in the world,” said Donna Lopiano, a former executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation. “We have the largest base of athletic development. Our women are going to dominate, not only because of their legal rights but because women in other parts of the world are discriminated against.”
A Media Matters review of broadcast evening news coverage on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS, as well as cable evening and prime-time coverage on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC between the days of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics revealed only two substantive mentions of Title IX as it relates to current or former American or international Olympians. A similar lack of interest was on display on the major Sunday political talk shows on ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox Broadcasting, and NBC.**
A review of available Nexis transcripts from August 5 through August 21 returned 259 results mentioning the Olympics in Rio, including just two references to Title IX’s role in encouraging and supporting female athletes and women’s sports: NBC Nightly News and PBS NewsHour each mentioned the legislation during Olympic segments on August 18 and August 19, respectively. By contrast, there were dozens of mentions of American swimmer Ryan Lochte’s infamous and unsubstantiated story of being robbed at gunpoint outside a Rio gas station.
Major print outlets including like The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today gave Title IX special attention in 2016, but their television counterparts once again dropped the ball. Title IX was also conspicuously absent from print and television coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics, according to a February 2014 Media Matters analysis.
As noted above, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which was authored by Sen. Birch Bayh (D-IN) and Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI) and signed into law by President Richard Nixon, has left an indelible mark on women's sports over the past 44 years. But American women aren't the only beneficiaries of the legislation; Title IX’s prohibition against gender discrimination at most educational institutions is a major contributing factor in making American universities a magnet for athletes from around the world.
Stanford University, the most successful athletic institution in the world this year in terms of Olympic medals, produced a number of American women medalists -- including burgeoning swimming stars Ledecky, Maya DiRado, and Simone Manuel. It also produced Greek pole vault gold medalist Katerina Stefanidi. If not for Ledecky, the most successful women’s swimmer of the summer would have been Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, an alumna of the University of Southern California. (Controversial Russian swimmer and two-time silver medalist Yulia Efimova, though not an alumna of the school, is coached by Southern Cal head coach Dave Salo.) Bahamian sprinter Shaunae Miller, an alumna of the University of Georgia, edged out former Southern Cal sprinter Allyson Felix to win gold in the women’s 400-meter. Canadian swimmer Chantal van Landeghem, another Georgia alum, took home a bronze medal in the women’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay alongside teammate and Ohio State University graduate Michelle Williams. Canadian track and field star Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who won a bronze medal in the heptathlon, attended the University of Oregon.
This is just a snapshot of the Title IX impact that was on display at the 2016 Summer Olympics, but broadcast and cable news almost completely ignored the success story, despite offering a torrent of Olympic-centered stories and features.
Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of transcripts of evening and prime-time (defined as 5 p.m. through 11 p.m.) weekday programs on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, and network broadcast news (ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS) from August 5, 2016, through August 21, 2016. Media Matters also reviewed Sunday political talk shows on ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox Broadcasting, and NBC during the same time period. We identified and reviewed all segments that included any of the following keywords: olympics or rio or title nine or title 9 or title ix.
The following programs were included in the data: World News Tonight, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS Evening News, Face the Nation, NBC Nightly News, Meet the Press**, PBS NewsHour, The Situation Room, Erin Burnett OutFront, Anderson Cooper 360, CNN Tonight, The Five, Special Report, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, The O'Reilly Factor, The Kelly File, Hannity, MTP Daily, With All Due Respect, Hardball with Chris Matthews, All In with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show, and The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell. For shows that air reruns, only the first airing was included in data retrieval.
UPDATE (8/18/16): After this piece was published, PBS NewsHour aired an August 17 segment with Louisiana state climatologist Barry Keim and Columbia University professor Adam Sobel that discussed how the Louisiana flooding and Blue Cut wildfire in California are “related to climate change.”
The major U.S. broadcast news networks have all ignored climate change in their nightly news coverage of Louisiana's recent record-breaking rainfall and flooding. The New York Times and The Washington Post, by contrast, have explained how the extreme weather and flooding in Louisiana are in line with the predicted impacts of a warming planet.
The disaster in Louisiana killed at least 11 people and displaced thousands more. The American Red Cross described the state’s flooding as “the worst natural disaster to strike the United States since Superstorm Sandy,” and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association classified the record rainfall as a once-in-every-500-years event -- the eighth such event to take place in the U.S. since May 2015.
Climate Nexus’ Climate Signals, a tool designed to “[e]xplore how climate change affects your world by searching events, impacts, and related climate signals,” explained how Louisiana’s increased atmospheric moisture and unusually heavy rainfall were “classic signals of climate change”:
At least nine people have died in what the American Red Cross is calling the "worst disaster since Superstorm Sandy." On August 11, a measure of atmospheric moisture, precipitable water, was in historic territory at 2.78 inches, a measurement higher than during some past hurricanes in the region. Increased moisture in the air and unusually heavy rainfall are classic signals of climate change. As the world warms, storms are able to feed on warmer ocean waters, and the air is able to hold and dump more water. These trends have led to a pronounced increase in intense rainfall events and an increase in flooding risk. In the Southeastern US, extreme precipitation has increased 27 percent from 1958 to 2012.
The storm in the Southeastern US was supercharged by running over a warmer ocean and through an atmosphere made wetter by global warming.
Climate change is now responsible for 17 percent of moderate extreme rainfall events, i.e. one-in-a-thousand day events. The more extreme the event, the more likely climate change was responsible, as climate change affects the frequency of the extreme events the most.
However, the major broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts have ignored climate change in their otherwise extensive coverage of the floods. NBC Nightly News aired five segments on the floods without mentioning climate change, while ABC’s World News Tonight and CBS Evening News each aired three such segments and PBS NewsHour aired two.
By contrast, two major newspapers have noted how Louisiana’s deadly floods are in line with expectations for a warming planet. In an August 15 Washington Post article, Chris Mooney wrote that climate researchers were affirming that the heavy rainfall Louisiana experienced is “precisely the sort of event that you’d expect to see more of on a warming planet,” and quoted climate researcher Katharine Hayhoe explaining, “Louisiana is always at risk of floods, naturally, but climate change is exacerbating that risk, weighting the dice against us.” Moreover, an August 16 article in The New York Times quoted Texas’ state climatologist stating, “There’s definitely an increase in heavy rainfall due to climate change.” And another August 16 Times article -- headlined “Flooding in the South Looks a Lot Like Climate Change” -- quoted David Easterling, a director at the National Centers for Environmental Information, stating that Louisiana's heavy rainfall and flooding “is consistent with what we expect to see in the future if you look at climate models.”
Media Matters’ annual study of how the major networks cover climate change found that PBS, CBS, and NBC frequently addressed the link between climate change and extreme weather in their nightly newscasts in 2015. However, the broadcast networks appear to have regressed in their extreme weather coverage this year, with every major TV network ignoring the role of human-induced climate change in their coverage of Texas’ record rainfall and flooding throughout April and May, despite both NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News explaining the climate connection in their coverage of similarly drastic Texas floods the year before. The nightly newscasts’ omission of climate change in their coverage of Louisiana’s horrific flooding marks a continuation of that discouraging trend.
Economists Made Up More Than 7 Percent Of Guests In The Second Quarter Of 2016
Economic news in the second quarter of 2016 bore striking similarities to trends established in the first quarter, as the presidential candidates’ economic platforms increasingly shaped the news. Coverage of inequality slipped from a high point last quarter, but the unprecedented economic crisis created by the United Kingdom’s so-called “Brexit” referendum did boost participation from economists to the highest point ever recorded by Media Matters.
After the landmark Supreme Court ruling that struck down Texas’ anti-choice law HB 2, two network evening news programs allowed anti-abortion activists to spin the ruling as a “loss for women’s health and safety.” But in actuality, the Supreme Court found that the requirements imposed by the Texas law addressed “no significant health-related problem” and are “nearly arbitrary” -- findings that two other networks highlighted.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) new series of proposals -- released June 7 in a report commissioned by House Republicans titled “A Better Way to Fight Poverty” -- aims to restructure federal anti-poverty programs, but they heavily rely on myths commonly promoted by right-wing media outlets that mislead about poverty and shame the poor. On June 6, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released its own plan to reform and restructure anti-poverty programs in the United States, offering an example of what serious proposals look like when informed by serious economic research, rather than by right-wing media myths.
Fox News Talks A Lot About Inequality And Poverty, But Promotes Policies That Would Make The Problems Worse
In the first quarter of 2016, prime-time and evening weekday news programs on the largest cable and broadcast outlets mentioned poverty during roughly 55 percent of their discussions of economic inequality in the United States. During the same time period, Sunday political talk shows mentioned poverty in only 33 percent of discussions of economic inequality.
Economists Made Up 1 Percent Of Guests In The First Quarter Of 2016, While Shows Focused On Campaigns, Inequality
Expertise from economists was almost completely absent from television news coverage of the economy in the first quarter of 2016, which focused largely on the tax and economic policy platforms of this year’s presidential candidates. Coverage of economic inequality spiked during the period -- tying an all-time high -- driven in part by messaging from candidates on both sides of the aisle, but gender diversity in guests during economic news segments remained low.
A Media Matters analysis of the broadcast evening and weekend TV news coverage of mass protests against money in politics organized by Democracy Awakening and Democracy Spring revealed that the networks devoted only two segments -- a total of 29 seconds of airtime -- between April 11 and April 18 to the week-long demonstrations.
The Obama administration has released a comprehensive new scientific report detailing how climate change affects human health, presenting the broadcast networks' nightly news programs with a good opportunity to cover a critical topic that they rarely addressed last year.
The Climate and Health Assessment, which is the result of three years of research by approximately 100 health and science experts in eight federal agencies, builds on the findings of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's National Climate Assessment and signifies increased "scientific confidence in the link between climate change and a broad range of threats to public health."
These threats include some of the most severe effects of global warming, such as increased incidence of death from extreme heat waves and worsened air quality, as well as some less discussed impacts, including the potential for carbon pollution to make our food crops less nutritious and the toll that weather-related disasters can take on our mental health. The report also details how climate change will increase or otherwise alter the risks of suffering from various diseases and illnesses, including Lyme disease from ticks, West Nile virus from mosquitos, water-borne illnesses, and Salmonella poisoning from food.
Any of these topics could provide fodder for an important and informative nightly news segment that would help viewers better understand the threats and challenges posed by climate change.
NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News did each provide a substantial report last year on the ways climate change is impacting allergies and asthma, respectively. But here, too, the Obama administration report provides opportunities for additional coverage.
For instance, the networks could examine these issues from an environmental justice perspective; the report finds that minority adults and children "bear a disproportionate burden associated with asthma as measured by emergency department visits, lost work and school days, and overall poorer health status." And when considering all of the various health impacts, the report identifies many specific populations that are "disproportionately vulnerable" to climate change:
[C]limate change exacerbates some existing health threats and creates new public health challenges. While all Americans are at risk, some populations are disproportionately vulnerable, including those with low income, some communities of color, immigrant groups (including those with limited English proficiency), Indigenous peoples, children and pregnant women, older adults, vulnerable occupational groups, persons with disabilities, and persons with preexisting or chronic medical conditions.
The networks could also cover some of these public health findings alongside a distressing new study on sea level rise, which projects severe impacts on coastal cities that will undoubtedly have profound implications on the health and well-being of millions of Americans. Or they could address the public health benefits of the most significant U.S. climate policy in U.S. history, the Clean Power Plan, which the networks infrequently covered in 2015 -- and which polluting fossil fuel industry groups and allied attorneys general are now fighting in court.
Major news outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, The Guardian, Time magazine, The Associated Press, and McClatchyDC have already covered the new White House report. Now is the time for the broadcast networks' nightly news programs to improve on last year's coverage and educate their viewers about the myriad ways that a changing climate is affecting our health.
Image at top via Flickr user Graeme Maclean using a Creative Commons license.
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With 20 presidential primary debates now completed, debate moderators have only asked 22 questions about climate change, which is just 1.5 percent of the 1,477 questions posed. In addition, the moderators were more than twice as likely to ask a climate question to a Democratic candidate than to a Republican candidate, and they have not asked a single climate question to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, the two front-runners for the GOP presidential nomination. Nearly one-third of the climate questions were asked in the two most recent debates in Miami, following a bipartisan group of 21 Florida mayors urging the networks to address the issue in those debates.
It is nothing short of stunning that in 2015, a year that featured more newsworthy climate-related events than ever before, the broadcast networks' coverage of climate change declined. The networks have a responsibility to educate the public about the impacts that climate change is having on our security, our economy, and our health.
In response to Media Matters' new analysis of climate change coverage on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox in 2015, members of Congress, climate scientists, environmental advocates, and other experts criticized the networks for providing too little climate change coverage and too much climate science denial.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI): "In a year when nearly 200 countries around the world collectively recognized the threat of climate change and the United States made historic commitments to cut carbon pollution, major networks actually cut their media coverage of climate change. In 2015, the network Sunday shows devoted just 73 minutes to climate change, a ten percent decrease from the year before. What makes these findings even more troubling is the fact that with the little time devoted to climate change, these Sunday shows continued to mislead their audiences by including climate denial as part of the discussion. The facts are clear. Scientists, governments, and major corporations around the world have accepted the facts about climate change and are having real debates on solutions. In this consequential election year, it's time for news broadcasters to do the same."
Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY): "As the co-founder of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, I read Media Matters' new study and it's a wake up call to the news networks. The most important long term global and national issue shouldn't be getting short-thrift. People need more information, not less."
Michael Mann, climate scientist at Penn State University: "It is unconscionable that so many purportedly mainstream media outlets continue to misinform the public when it comes to the matter of human-caused climate change. History will not look back kindly upon television news networks that had an opportunity to inform the public about this existential threat, and instead chose to serve as willing mouthpieces for denialist fossil fuel interests."
Kevin Trenberth, climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research: "These results are disturbing. ... It is evident that the networks are gun shy about climate change, most likely because advertisers demand it. It is a very sad state of affairs that the science of climate change and the continuing evidence about it is hidden from listeners. What is done about the problem should be a separate matter entirely from whether we have a problem. Climate change is already with us and is causing mostly adverse effects every day, but the public is not well informed."
Liz Perera, Sierra Club climate policy director: "This past year, we have seen unprecedented progress tackling the unprecedented danger that climate change poses to our families, yet the major networks seem to dedicate more time to covering the Kardashians than this public health crisis. Americans deserve to know the truth about how the climate crisis is affecting the world around us and how clean energy is helping solve the problem. Ignoring that reality only serves the interests of the big polluters and undermines the health and well-being of all American families."
David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen's climate program: "It is beyond shocking that broadcast network coverage of climate change declined in 2015. If we don't act quickly to mitigate climate change, it will cause devastating harm to our economy, our health, and our security. Last year's high temperatures shattered the previous record, set just one year earlier. At the same time, 2015 was probably the most momentous year in history on climate change, with a landmark Paris deal, the Obama Administration's rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, the first-ever federal rules curbing carbon pollution from power plants, the Pope's encyclical, and more. The media should be covering climate change as if it were World War III, and they have plenty of material to work with. It's a travesty of journalism to commit such a small and declining amount of air time to the existential threat we face from runaway greenhouse gas emissions."
Riley Dunlap, environmental sociologist at Oklahoma State University: "I am not surprised that there was more TV coverage of climate change denial in 2015, as historically there is a pattern of the 'denial machine' ramping up its efforts whenever the possibility of meaningful action on climate change seems imminent. This began with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and has continued, so I'm not surprised to see more coverage of denialists last year because of the Paris [climate agreement]. The conservative think tanks and front groups behind the denial campaign, and the small number of contrarian scientists aligned with them, have great success in obtaining media exposure in general. And they really go into overdrive when they fear that national legislation or an international treaty could be enacted. The disappointing thing is that mainstream media still give them a forum."
Six Years After Citizens United, Coverage Of Campaign Finance Reform Has Room For Improvement
On the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC, PBS remains the gold standard for coverage of campaign finance reform while other broadcast networks show room for improvement, according to a Media Matters review of their evening and Sunday news shows over the past 16 months. While coverage of the subject has increased across the board, with CBS in particular showing a substantial increase, a sizable fraction of the increase is due to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) raising the issue in interviews on Sunday programs, rather than proactive efforts by journalists to cover campaign finance reform.
Broadcast evening news programs were once again virtually silent on congressional Republicans' attempt to restrict women's access to reproductive health care by pushing an extreme 20-week ban through the Senate. The same outlets ignored a GOP-controlled House vote on a similar bill in May.