|By Jacqui Banaszynski
Everybody talks about the weather — more than ever these days. But not everybody gets death threats for their comments.
Yet that’s what happened to Chris Gloninger, a chief meteorologist who had moved from his native Massachusetts to take a job in Iowa. He was among the broadcast meteorologists who tapped a resource called Climate Matters so he could put news of extreme weather in the studied context of climate change. There could be few better places to do that than Iowa, where agriculture is central to the economy and where you can see weather coming from all directions. He felt he’d be making a difference.
Not everyone who tuned into KCCI-TV in Des Moines welcomed that difference. Short version: He received hostile emails that ratcheted up until they became serious and specific threats on his life and home. Police got involved. Gloninger and his wife bought security cameras for their home. Then they moved to a hotel for safety. Gloninger kept working but as the threats and anxiety grew, began to see a therapist. He was diagnosed with PTSD and faced one of those life-changing decisions: He was more committed than ever to helping people understand the reality of climate change, but couldn’t do it in his current role.
He moved back to Massachusetts, where he is senior scientist in climate and risk communication at the Woods Hole Group.
An essay he wrote about his saga was published last week in the Boston Globe. As he wrote:
Journalists are expected to grow thick skin, but with each new e-mail, it became more difficult to recover. Something had to change, but one thing was certain: I would not be deterred from addressing an issue I saw as an existential global crisis.
It’s a good read with a smart structure. For those of you who want to write essays — and that’s most of you — get out your Sharpie and study how he shapes his story: The set-up, the backstory, the circle back and the closing argument.
But what caught my interest was what Gloninger wrote about the reaction from his viewers. When he was on the air, the loudest voices came from the cranks who wanted to silence him. It was only when he announced his resignation that other voices rose:
I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. I received hundreds of e-mails and messages. Messages from Iowans who wanted to hear about how climate change was affecting the weather. I had questioned if people appreciated the information I was sharing, if my work had made an impact — and I had my answer.
That offers an important reminder to any journalist who reports uncomfortable news — which these days is pretty hard to avoid.
I email now and again with Danny Westneat, a metro columnist at The Seattle Times. He has an uncanny ability to ferret the real stories out of a mumble of numbers, including political polls. His writing is clear and sharp. He is open-minded and, unlike many columnists, not knee-jerk predictable. He backs his arguments with the kind of reporting that makes you rethink your own reactive views. Now and again, I remember to do what I should more often: send a quick note thanking him for his work. I shouldn’t have been surprised when he once wrote back his own gratitude, saying that appreciation was something he seldom heard from readers.
A complex reality
I still remember the day, years ago, when I was fretting to an editor at my newspaper in Minnesota about the flak I was receiving from both entrenched sides of a big meatpackers’ strike. Even some colleagues in the newsroom let me know if they thought my coverage was too critical or too kind to one side or the other — as if things were that simplistic. And the reporters who had been covering the strike for several weeks had every reason to be resentful when I was sent in to take the lead.
The editor listened well. He asked good questions that helped me assess not just my feelings, but my work. We talked a bit about the false construct of “both sides” journalism when reality is multi-faceted.
Then he sent me back in the field with a clear message: “This isn’t a popularity contest, and we didn’t hire you to be prom queen. We hired you to be a reporter.”
Silence doesn’t mean disapproval
Just as everybody talks about the weather, everybody wants to be loved. It’d be nice to know if our viewers and readers and listeners appreciated us. Some days it would be enough to know they’re watching, reading or listening.
I believe they do and they are, even when they don’t say so. You probably don’t mutter more than “Good, thanks,” about a satisfying restaurant meal, but words to a server can get pretty sharp when something is off.
Think about how much of your life, personal and professional, is like that. Then, when you get discouraged — when you feel like you’re writing into a void — imagine what would happen if you weren’t doing the valuable work you do.
Gloninger closed his essay with a belief about the human ability to face climate change. It’s not a bad message to hold onto when the journalism gets hard:
We are resilient and adaptable — and, hopefully, difficult times can bring out the best in each of us.