I like weather reports. Besides the “shared community” feeling, since we all experience weather, they tend to be a respite in the midst of a stream of depressing news. These days, television news stations seek out personable, educated meteorologists, lending an added credibility.
But that credibility is starting to be stretch a bit due to news hype.
How often do we click on the nightly news and hear words like “scandal” and “threat” and even “terror,” all aimed at generating viewer interest? Sometimes those terms are accurate; often, though, they’re aimed at presenting controversy where little or no controversy exists. Sadly, such hype has crept into weather reporting.
Let’s start with the bizarre decision in 2011 by the Weather Channel to start naming winter storms, as traditionally done for hurricanes. TWC argues that naming a storm makes it easier for people to track and prepare; every other weather agency calls it self-serving, a way to hype coverage.
(As a Star Trek fan, though, I confess I enjoyed shaking my fist at a particular storm and shouting, “Kha-a-a-a-a-n-n-n!”)
While most news outlets eschew official names for storms, they aren’t above coming up with creative unofficial titles like “Frankenstorm” or “October Fury” or “Stormageddon” (not to be confused with the “Dark Lord of All”).
Then there are the live reports, where news team members are dispatched to exotic locales like the parking lot so that viewers can see, yes, it’s raining/snowing.
While such hype is mostly just annoying, there’s an argument that overblown weather reporting dulls viewers’ reactions to real weather threats. “After a handful of overhyped weather patterns, people in the danger zones of an oncoming storm may start to assume that the Weather Channel is selling wolf tickets, so to speak,” writes Chris Opfer at howstuffworks.com. “Also called the ‘availability heuristic,’ this phenomenon has been attributed to many victims of Katrina, whom after years of hype and misses, simply believed the storm would pass them by once again.”
I know what Opfer means. When the tornado sirens go off in my neighborhood, my wife wisely heads for the basement while I go outside to look.
Meteorologists serve an important role in keeping us informed of threatening weather. As such, they need to be free of the pressure to overblow what they report—as is true with all forms of news reporting.