Media reporting of drought in the Northwest

Tracking media representation of the Northwest’s drought over the past water year

Erica Fleishman

Over the past 20 years, the incidence, extent, and severity of drought increased in both the western United States in general and the Northwest in particular compared with twentieth century averages. For example, from 2000 through 2020, an average of 37% of Oregon experienced annual drought of at least moderate intensity, as classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor, and extreme drought affected nearly 7% of the state. On 7 September 2021, 98% of the western United States was in drought, and 22% was in exceptional drought, the most intense category designated by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

These changes in frequency and intensity of drought partially are attributable to climate change. The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in August 2021, indicated medium confidence that agricultural and ecological drought (in this case, measured as a deficit in soil moisture) in western North America are becoming more common as a result of human-caused climate change. The report also indicated high confidence that since 1950, climate change has increased the worldwide probability of compound extreme events, including heat waves and droughts. As summers in the Northwest continue to become warmer and drier, and mountain snowpack decreases, the frequency of droughts, particularly snow droughts, is likely to increase. Snow droughts occur when snowpack—or snow water equivalent—is below average for a given point in the water year, traditionally 1 April.

Photograph of a mountain range with a dry playa in the foreground
Arid environments, such as high deserts in the interior Northwest, are likely to become hotter and drier as the climate continues to change.

Given long-term changes in the frequency and intensity of drought, and the ongoing drought in the Northwest, we were curious how the U.S. media is reporting on drought and its relations with climate change. We used the Access World News database to search U.S. newspaper records from 1 September 2020 – 6 September 2021 that included “drought” and “Idaho,” “Oregon,” or “Washington” in the title or first paragraph. We then verified that the articles indeed focused on drought and we removed duplicate records, such as newswire articles that were reprinted by multiple media outlets. These steps yielded 104 distinct newspaper articles (some totals below are higher because certain articles fit into more than one category). The number of articles was relatively low from September 2020 through April 2021 (13), and then increased considerably during spring and summer 2021, peaking in July (34). Last winter, several articles addressed the potential for a strong La Niña that might alleviate the drought. Conversely, other articles reported that regional snowpack is decreasing and aridity is increasing over time.

Of the final set of articles, 56 (54%) reported on drought in Oregon, 34 (33%) in Idaho, and 26 (25%) in Washington. The greatest percentage of articles concentrated on the effects of drought on agriculture (28%) or wildfire (24%), or on weather or climate patterns, such as winter storms, that can exacerbate or alleviate drought (14%) (Table 1). Common threads in articles about agriculture were limited water for irrigation or livestock and reduced yields of particular crops, such as wheat. Articles focused on wildfire examined diverse subjects, from fire danger and local bans on fireworks or burning to increasing resilience of local communities to fire.

Major topicNumber of articlesPercentage that referenced climate change
Drought declarations567
Financial assistance80
Freshwater flows10
Home construction10
Water conservation20
Water infrastructure1100
Water storage1100
Table 1. Drought-related topics and their representation in media artiles from 1 September 2020 through 6 September 2021.

Seventeen of the 104 articles (16%) referenced climate change. The percentage of articles concentrated on Oregon or Washington that mentioned climate change was about double the percentage of Idaho-focused articles that commented on climate change. Excluding topics that were the subject of only one article, the percentage that referenced climate change was greatest in articles that addressed drought declarations (67%), terrestrial wildlife (50%), and fisheries (33%) (Table 1). For example, a July article about declaration of a drought emergency by the Washington Department of Ecology quoted Washington Governor Jay Inslee linking drought frequency to climate change, and Department of Ecology Director Laura Watson commenting on building climate resilience into the state’s water supply.

Especially given small sample sizes, we cannot infer the extent to which perspectives of local politicians or newspaper readers explicitly or implicitly affected coverage of climate change. The governors of all three Northwest states publicly recognize links between climate extremes or climate-related hazards and climate change, although the governors of Oregon and Washington arguably have been more vocal. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s 2020 climate opinion data, 66% of Idaho residents acknowledge that climate is changing, whereas 73% in Oregon and 75% in Washington make this acknowledgement. Across the country, 72% of residents believe that climate is changing. Preliminary results from CIRC collaborator Hilary Boudet (Oregon State University) indicate that exposure to wildfire smoke in 2020 changed many Oregonians’ support for shifts in climate policy. As droughts continue to affect the Northwest, we hope to track whether individuals’ experiences affect their attribution of drought to climate change, and whether newspapers increasingly mention climate change in their reporting about water shortages and aridification.

Erica Fleishman co-leads CIRC. She long has been interested in how science is reported by scientists and the media.

Featured Image by Erica Fleishman. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s