September 28, 2023

Harassment of TV meteorologists reflects broader anti-science, anti-media trends

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The harassment began to intensify as TV meteorologist Chris Gloninger gave more coverage on climate change during local newscasts — outraged emails and even a threat to show up at his home.

Gloninger said he was recruited in part to “shake things up” at the Iowa station where he worked, but backlash mounted. The man who sent him a series of threatening emails was charged with third-degree harassment. The Des Moines station asked him to reverse his coverage, facing what it called understandable pressure to maintain ratings.

“I just started connecting the dots between extreme weather and climate change, and then the volume of pushback started to increase quite dramatically,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

So on June 21, he announced he was leaving KCCI-TV β€” and his 18-year career in journalism altogether.

Gloninger’s experience is all too common among meteorologists across the country who see viewer comments linking climate change to extreme temperatures, blizzards, tornadoes and flooding in their local weather reports. For on-air meteorologists, the anti-science trend that has emerged in recent years is driving increasing skepticism from the news media.

Many meteorologists say it reflects a more hostile political landscape that is also affecting workers in a variety of jobs previously considered impartial, including librarians, school administrators and election workers.

For several years now, Gloninger said, “beliefs have been reinforced more than truth and evidence-based science. And that’s not a good situation for a nation to be in.”

Gloninger’s announcement caused an echo at a national conference of broadcast meteorologists in Phoenix, where many shared their own horror stories, recalled Brad Colman, president of the American Meteorological Society.

“They say, ‘You should have seen this note.’ And they try to take it with a smile, a lighthearted laugh,” Colman said. “But some of them are really scary.”

Meteorologists have long been subject to abuse, but that has intensified in recent years, said Sean Sublette, a former TV meteorologist and now the chief meteorologist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“More than once I’ve had people call me names or tell me I’m stupid or intimidating things like this simply to share information they didn’t want to hear,” he said.

A decade ago, far fewer TV meteorologists talked on the air about climate change, even though they wanted to, said Edward Maibach, the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.

The Weather Channel gave its first climate reporter, scientist Heidi Cullen, a special show in 2006. She met bitter and sexist resistance from some viewers, including conservative leaders, while challenging other TV forecasters to include global warming in their coverage. to grab.

Climate Matters, a National Science Foundation-funded project, was piloted in 2010 and fully launched in 2012 to support climate change reporting through data analysis, graphics, and other reporting materials.

Now TV meteorologists across the country are reporting on climate change, though Maibach said they don’t always use those words. It’s becoming more common to at least show its effects, he said, such as highlighting the trend of more days in a year with temperatures above 90 degrees (32 degrees Celsius).

Even when that kind of coverage appeals to most people, the criticism can be the loudest.

“If you stop reporting relevant and important facts about what’s going on in your community because you hear from one in 10, it means you’re not serving the other nine in 10,” Maibach said.

Some meteorologists have seen growing public interest in climate change, even in largely red states, as floods, droughts and other severe weather have devastated farmland and homes. Jessica Hafner, chief meteorologist at KMIZ-TV in Columbia, Missouri, said that with the exception of a few troublemakers, she’s seen people respond well to data-based reporting because they want to know what’s going on around them.

Meteorologist Matt Serwe, who used to work in Nebraska, said the livelihoods of farmers living there depend on the weather, so they take climate change seriously.

“You want to know how best to succeed in these conditions,” he said. “Because at that point it’s survival.”

It’s not just a problem in the United States. Meteorologists in Spain, France, Australia and the UK are also subject to complaints and harassment, said Jennie King, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s London-based chief of climate research and policy.

Some meteorologists do not see harassment as a direct result of their reporting on climate change; it is a pervasive problem in the industry and targets some more than others. According to a 2022 Pew Research Center poll, TV reporters are more likely than reporters on other media outlets to say they have been harassed or threatened.

The gap between Republican and Democrat confidence in both the scientific community and the news media is the widest in nearly five decades of polling from the General Society Survey, a longstanding trend study conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. But confidence in both fell down the aisle last year.

“Science is under attack in this country,” said Chitra Kumar, general director of Climate and Energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. β€œIt’s this bigger trend. It is really unacceptable from our perspective that someone should fear for their life just stating the facts.”

Gloninger moves back to Boston to care for elderly parents, but says he’s leaving Des Moines after realizing that a small percentage of people who reject climate change make up an overwhelming percentage of the negative comments he’s received.

“I know that now with the feedback I’ve received afterwards, with hundreds of emails, dozens of handwritten letters,” he said of messages coming in from all over the state. KCCI-TV did not respond to requests for comment.

“This incident is not representative of what Iowans are and what they believe,” Gloninger added. “Ultimately, people have been incredibly supportive – not just me, but my station’s efforts to beat the climate.”


Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas, and Ballentine from Columbia, Missouri.

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