For some journalists, climate change coverage brings harassment, threats

Activists mark the start of Climate Week in New York during a demonstration calling for the U.S. government to take action on climate change and reject the use of fossil fuels in New York City, Sept 17, 2023. [Reuters]

Thousands of protesters marched through New York City Sunday demanding that President Joe Biden and other world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly end the use of fossil fuels.

As climate change has become more urgent and polarizing, the scientists researching it and the journalists who report on it find themselves harassed.

Meteorologist Chris Gloninger says he had been excited to tie climate change into his weather forecasts when the CBS affiliate KCCI hired him in 2021.

“I decided that I wanted the opportunity to talk about climate change in a part of the country where there was this massive void,” said Gloninger, who moved to Des Moines, Iowa, for the job. “It seemed to me like a no-brainer.”

But his reporters were met with harassment and eventually some death threats, he said.

“There were tons of harassing, nasty emails from other viewers that were cruel and filled with hate,” he told VOA.

KCCI was supportive, Gloninger said, even assigning a security detail to the meteorologist. And a man was later convicted of harassment and fined.

But eventually, the harassment and anxiety became too much. Gloninger resigned and moved to Massachusetts this year.

Gloninger’s experience is extreme and rare, but journalists who cover climate change are finding themselves on the front lines of what has become a culture war issue.

“Climate change for many families has joined sex, religion and politics at the Thanksgiving Day table as topics you don’t bring up,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

The experiences of these reporters, climate analysts say, mark the confluence of several different forces: the existential threat that climate change poses for Earth, a decline of trust in science and the media, a rise in disinformation and misinformation, and a surge in far-right authoritarianism.

A 2021 study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that while 72% of adults in the United States believe global warming is happening, a little over 10% do not.

And of that small group, most also believe conspiracy theories about climate change.

“They’re only 10%, but they’re a really loud 10%,” Leiserowitz told VOA. An even smaller percentage of that 10% are actually active in harassing journalists, he said, adding that he, too, has received death threats over his work.

VOA spoke with seven journalists and academics focused on climate change, all of whom said they had experienced varying degrees of harassment including social media posts and aggressive emails to cyberstalking and hacking attempts.

Some of that harassment came from climate change deniers or fossil fuel companies, and sometimes people on the left accused reporters of not moving fast enough or bemoaned any action as futile, the journalists said.

“If you do investigative journalism in the climate space, where you’re looking at governments or corporations, you’re going to be upsetting some very powerful interests,” Neela Banerjee, a climate editor at NPR, said.

Banerjee previously worked at InsideClimate News where she worked on the Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigation on how Exxon ignored its own research on the effect of fossil fuels and sought to misinform the public about the risks.

When the outlet launched its series, Banerjee said, it was notified of attempts to hack the group’s emails. They never confirmed the perpetrator, she added.

Exxon is now accused in a lawsuit alongside other oil and gas companies of misleading the public. The company denies any wrongdoing.

According to Meaghan Parker, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists, “Climate journalists are just collateral damage of the very concerted, organized, well-funded effort to attack climate scientists.”

The challenges mirror broader trends. A 2022 study by professors at George Washington University found that science journalists in general are experiencing more online harassment.

“It’s just basically delegitimizing anyone reporting on science,” said Anneliese Palmer, a longtime climate journalist and research professor for science communication at George Washington University. “It doesn’t really matter what the topic is.”

Palmer added that women who report on science often face disproportionately more harassment over their work, which is consistent with trends across the media.

A couple decades ago, there weren’t many journalists working on the climate change beat, reporters who spoke with VOA said. Back then, climate coverage had to also cite climate change deniers — “sort of in a false balance narrative,” said Andrew Freedman, who covers the climate at Axios.

But starting in the late 2000s, with nearly all scientists in agreement that climate change is real and humans are the cause, journalists were no longer citing pseudoscience from deniers for the sake of showing both sides.

“That is when you can start to see, I think, the tide turning to attacking journalists,” Parker said.

Freedman, for one, said that although he has never been targeted with an orchestrated harassment campaign, the threat of one “definitely crosses my mind on almost a daily basis.”

“I’m not really thinking of climate contrarians whenever I sit down to write a story. That used to be the case, but it’s not the case anymore,” he added.

Journalists are broadly grappling with the challenge of distrust in media being at an all-time high in the United States. But climate change journalists are dealing with the additional challenge that comes with covering a topic as polarizing as global warming.

Other concerns include how disinformation affects audiences, and how to connect with those who don’t trust science in general.

There’s so much climate disinformation out there, that Freedman, from Axios, said it isn’t worth trying to debunk every piece of it. “We face a deluge of sorting through misinformation and disinformation,” he said.

Due to declining trust in media and the polarization of climate change, “folks who don’t accept the realities of human-driven climate change — both the fact that it’s human-driven, and it’s profoundly urgent — by and large, they’re not our audience,” NPR’s Banerjee said.

“Piercing that information bubble that they might live in with misinformation, conspiracy theories — that has to be done by a trusted messenger,” Banerjee said.