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Audience Responsibility In Relation To Weather Reports

Image of my dog, Fox, in the snow.

My dog, Fox, demonstrates what Seattle snow looks like when it shows up.

Full disclosure: Just a reminder that I work for KIRO TV.

If you’re in Seattle tonight, you may well be wondering, Where the hell is my snow? That’s fair. Forecasts called for quite a lot to accumulate, and it did, just not in Seattle proper.

This happens occasionally in Western Washington — I won’t get into the intricacies of how hard it is to forecast weather in our area, and this seattlepi.com post has already done it pretty well — and when it does, some people get angry.

This is a delicate subject, and I want to be clear from the outset that I’m looking to stoke a debate more than make definitive, voice-of-god declarations.

But: Does anyone in their right mind really think that weather forecasts are definitive?

Journalists who are meteorologists have an insanely difficult job because, unlike any other beat in the news business, a good portion of their job involves reporting on the future. They forecast weather — that is, they analyze data, and convey their analyses to the public for general FYI consumption.

There are two problems TV meteorologists run into that are likely at the root of people’s angry responses when the weather doesn’t behave as anticipated: (1) A weather forecast is infinitely complex, and a TV broadcast offers only a small window in which to simplify the data; and (2) TV forecasters speak in definitive terms (e.g. “You’re going to wake up to a few inches of snow.”)

Point No. 2 is the bigger problem.

When the average TV viewer hears “it will snow tomorrow,” he probably just takes it at face value: It. Will. Snow. That’s ridiculous, though, because no one can guarantee that anything will happen tomorrow, or even five seconds from now.

This is where audience responsibility comes into play.

Obviously no one can know for sure that anything will happen, so when a TV viewer hears “it will snow,” he has to take into consideration all the qualifiers that come with that statement, but which would be too tedious to actually mention out loud. “It will snow tomorrow”: If what’s likely now remains likely tomorrow; if new environmental factors don’t come into play; if the unexpected does not occur. (I told someone earlier today (paraphrasing): We forecast what’s likely to happen. That does not preclude the unlikely from occurring.) It is not unlike my making a definitive statement four paragraphs ago: “There are two problems TV meteorologists run into….” The unspoken qualifier there is “in my opinion,” but it’s inherent and thus unnecessary, because this is my blog, and besides that, logic prohibits anyone from definitively declaring that all TV meteorologists only have two problems.

I’m curious to hear what you think: Should TV weatherpeople be expected to qualify every statement they make with “ifs,” or does the audience bear the responsibility to assume what’s unspoken?

Please drop a comment or two.

Comments on this entry are closed.

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  • Scottkrone

    What you have not touched on here is the question, what does management want the newscaster to present. They want big headlines and dramatic predictions. Local news is in the entertainment business, not the news business. If people are “talking” about the forecast, then the weather “personality” has done his or her job as far as management is concerned. Accurate forecasting of the weather is not the primary concern.

  • PilgrimzPilgrimz

    I have witnessed so many ‘predictions’ concerning white stuff that did not pan out that I find it difficult to believe it is not set up just to get us used to imbibing lies. We consume so many as it is and it helps our ‘leaders’ who say one thing to our faces all the time and do the opposite. We are always going to be assaulted by ‘nature’. Last season it was to be a multitude of storms in the gulf. Not one appeared. Now it is solar flares knocking out my cell phone and WiFi. Won’t happen. But thats fine I’ve swallowed another lie and just go my way waiting for the next one which I believe don’t believe at the same moment. These things can not all be by accident. Your non paranoid fellow human Robert.

  • I didn’t touch on that, mostly because it’s another post unto itself, but I’ll say shortly here: It just doesn’t exist.

    People like to think that there are these guys in suits pulling the strings of whatever goes on in the newsroom, but that just doesn’t happen.

    Are TV newsroom concerned with ratings? Yeah, just like newspaper newsrooms are concerned with circulation, and so on. What they’re selling, though, essentially, is reliability, and that’s lost when information is embellished. Besides that, if news stations were prone to embellish the weather for a return on viewership, they’d do it all the time.

  • Here’s the problem I was trying to describe above: Weather reports aren’t “predictions;” they’re forecasts. Usually when snow is forecast, all that’s being said is, “This is worth worrying about and planning for.”

    Let’s say the snow is a six-sided die: A roll of 2-6 means it will snow, a roll of 1 means it won’t snow. If I go on the air and say, “Get your snow shovel ready,” that’s perfectly fair, because odds are it will snow. At the same time, it’s entirely possible that 1 could be rolled.

    It’s like I told one of KIRO’s Twitter followers: We forecast what’s likely to happen. That doesn’t preclude the unlikely from happening.

  • Bruce

    My observation has been that forecasters do embellish the weather, most every forecast, to reach the extremes. In the winter, the talk is about the lowest numbers possible. Note all the talk of wind chill which produces a lower number. In the summer, it’s the higher number, thus the heavy use of heat index which produces a higher number.

    No, It’s not some suit in an office pulling a string for ratings. It’s simply human nature plus long precedent. It’s just what they do, they pattern they follow here in Seattle. “Overnight lows, daytime highs, forecast for the day, 5 day forecast”.

    When it snows, they find the snowiest mountain to stand on. When it rains, they find the highest river. The windiest mountain for the storm. TV is a visual medium and you have to show something, and the extremes are more interesting to everyone.

    Many regions follow that pattern. Not all do. Southern California, which I visit fairly often, seems to follow. Their pattern is “beaches, city, inland”, and they don’t seem to be searching for the extremes quite so much. After all, they’d just stand west of Palm Springs for the windy spot, Death Valley for the hot spot, Big Bear for the cold spot, and so on. Boring. So they don’t do it.

  • Guest

    When the weathermen say a percentage, it means just that…a chance of snow. 80 or 90 percent isn’t the same as 100 percent, it’s more along the lines of, “In the past with these same conditions, 80 percent of the time it snowed, 20 percent it didn’t.” People I’ve talked to treat the high percentages as the equivalent of 100 percent and are miffed when the weather doesn’t come about. That being said, at times they’ve predicted 0 or 100 percent and have been wrong, so I’ve been thinking to always have some sense of accuracy, they should do away with the definites. ;)

  • I completely agree. If a weather forecaster goes on TV and says, “It will definitely _____ tomorrow,” criticism is perfectly warranted if the weather doesn’t behave as predicted.

  • Aren’t extremes generally what any news organization reports, though? The most shocking crimes, the most amazing plays, etc.?

    Weather reports generally — at least here in Seattle — report those extremes in context with historical averages, which I think is somewhat valuable (e.g. it was colder than normal today).

  • Knsrock23

    what kind of dog do you have?

  • Ha! Great question. Fox is a Shiba Inu.

  • Michelle Globe

    What breed of dog is that? I have been searching all over the internet to figure it out because I want to get one just like that

  • Fox is a Shiba Inu.