Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Severe Words About Severe Weather

A friend who knows of my disdain for the scare-tactics of the local TV weather folks pointed me to a recent article in the Tennessean that talks about NOAA using stronger language to get people to take action when severe weather threatens.

You can find the official NOAA news release online easily, and it does indeed confirm that they’re considering much stronger language, particularly when they warn us about tornadoes.

The weather mavens were particularly concerned about the weather events a year ago in February, when the so-called “Super Tuesday Tornadoes” killed 56 people. NOAA looked into it, did a lot of interviews and asked a lot of questions, and discovered something the academics call “optimism bias” - people listen to and watch the warnings, but assume they’re not in danger and the warning is for somebody else.

NOAA feels like it was doing its job, getting the word out…but the word(s) they used weren’t strong enough. So last September, when Hurricane Ike bore down on Galveston, NOAA warned residents to “take cover or face certain death”. Strong enough for ya?

This tornado season, we’ll probably hear a warning more like “this is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation”, rather than “Doppler radar has indicated a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado”.

Most folks don’t have a direct line to NOAA. They don’t dial up the NOAA website and they don’t have a NOAA weather radio, although there’s no difficulty in getting either. They rely on the local broadcasters to provide storm warnings. In Madison the most-listened-to radio stations have contract deals with one of the local TV stations for weather service, so let’s admit it’s the local TV stations that carry the ball here.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this “optimism bias” is what I’ll chose to call the “lupine vocalization factor”. Crying wolf. Last summer, at one point during the live coverage of weather during a thunderstorm, one of the local TV stations had no less than FIVE “Doppler indicated tornadoes” on the screen at one time. Five.

It only takes one to flatten your neighborhood and change your life…just ask the folks in Stoughton about that…or Barneveld….but to my way of thinking, the TV weather folks constantly over-play their hand, warning us of “blizzard-like-conditions” that never materialize, and showing animated on-screen images of tornadoes that really aren’t there. We’ve been numbed by their scary predictions that don’t come true.

TV weather is an extremely competitive business at the local level. Stations invest millions of dollars in weather technology and training for their weather folks. Owners demand a return on that investment, and programming consultants tell them how important it is to “win the weather war”. So it becomes a competition in who can “out-warn” the other. And they’ll admit they’d rather error on the side of caution.

Perhaps the big local TV bosses should have lunch together, and talk about how they can be more of a public service in reporting and forecasting weather, and do less lupine vocalizing.

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