Bad Weather vs. Bad Reporting

With the hurricane season upon us and square in the midst of a near-nationwide heat wave, this is a good time to critique television news’ weather coverage — and overcoverage.

TV news consultants have a word for it: “anticipointment.” Viewers anticipate something big and are disappointed with the results, as when a local TV station promises accurate weather forecasting with its super-duper Doppler radar but doesn’t deliver consistently and responsibly.

Anticipointment involves more than simply having a storm — such as Tropical Storm Barry this week — that doesn’t live up to professional forecasters’ early predictions. Barry, the second storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, had been heading toward Louisiana, but then veered north toward Florida, dumping heavy rains but never reaching hurricane status.

Instead, anticipointment occurs when newscasters promote the upcoming weather as the Disastrous Event of the Century, and it just isn’t — not because the forecast changed, but because the weather’s severity was hyped in the first place.

In winter, for example, some stations roll out their “team coverage” for any anticipated snowfall. Breathless live reports pepper the evening newscasts. Then barely a flake falls.

Are viewers disappointed? Perhaps not, because they didn’t have to fight rush-hour traffic in heavy snow. But many end up spinning their wheels with needless activity, such as rushing to the supermarket to prepare for a winter Armageddon that never materializes.

Going by the numbers
Why all of the weather hype? Ratings, of course. Weather is the No. 1 local TV news story, and the station that garners viewers for the weather has a good shot at being No. 1 in its market.
But the public relies on radio and television more than any other media for weather news. It should be reported quickly and accurately without exaggeration. The urgent team coverage should be saved for major weather threats — any time of the year.

The effects of TV weather hype on a family’s life can be as great as those of bad weather itself. Jim Parker, former news director of WOI-TV in Des Moines, recalls that when he was a child in Cleveland, there had to be a foot of snow before schools closed and working parents were forced to scramble. Now, he says, even schools in the good old Midwest close for a couple of inches of snow. Part of the reason, he acknowledges, is that officials are more concerned about liability in today’s litigious society. But, he claims, TV meteorologists’ overwrought warnings also influence decisions to close schools and government offices.

The sky is falling — not
And there’s a potential Chicken Little effect: If stations repeatedly beat the drums wildly and nothing much happens, some viewers may become so blasé that they ignore valid warnings about truly dangerous weather conditions. Federal researchers said last month that the number of major hurricanes hitting the East Coast will increase in coming decades. Will viewers who’ve seen the weather hyped again and again pay attention if a real Big One comes?

Today’s hyperactive weather coverage is symptomatic of a general problem in the industry. “Death, destruction, murder and mayhem” are themes permeating local news, and the very consultants who coined the word “anticipointment” are part of the problem. They tell general managers and news directors that’s what the people want to see — even though surveys indicate that local news viewership is declining, and lack of credibility may be a reason.

The “watch us or you will die” mentality is backfiring. Station owners should get back to reliable reporting. It’s responsible journalism — and I’d forecast it’s good business, too.