It’s been a busy week for weather stories, especially today, with severe weather wreaking havoc across much of the middle United States.
Most reporters in the newsroom hate covering weather stories, but editors and producers know they’re the most read or watched stories. It affects everyone.
The problem is that some news outlets have taken weather reporting to a new level of hype, trying to get a boost from their dwindling audiences. Caution can help save lives and property, but hype can turn viewers away—and possibly risk lives and property.
Sensational weather reporting happened this week in my state of Colorado, as a spring snowstorm pushed its way through our communities. Starting a week ago, news stations and newspapers predicted a major blizzard, calling it “snowmageddon” or “snowpocalypse.” Schools were closed, employees were asked to work remotely, and grocery stores reported a run on essentials.
We did get snow this week, but since we had warm weather leading up to the storm, it didn’t stick to the streets. Most communities reported half the snow totals expected. It was a bust.
After an outcry on social media about the woefully awful forecasting and sensational media coverage, at least some local television weather people are now apologizing for creating hysteria.
The most veteran and respected weatherman in the Denver market blasted other stations for overblowing the coverage.
— Mike Nelson (@MikeNelson247) April 9, 2013
He even apologized for his part in the hysteria saying on his Facebook page:
“Forecasting the weather is a bit like being a field goal kicker, we are supposed to be accurate. This storm was a miss and I apologize if it has caused you inconvenience or hardship today.”
One Facebook commenter asked him why not just say you were wrong, to which the weatherman responded aptly, “I just did.”
Other stations weren’t as forthcoming with the blown forecast. Even as the storm fizzled, they were still saying: “We’ll stay on the low end of our predictions,” and hopefully “You still could see blizzard-like conditions.”
One weather woman was even boasting about the 8- to 12-inch “drifts” in her yard.
The Denver Post spoke with one weather person, who said: “We always err on the side of caution and present a worst-case scenario. We’d rather have people over-prepared.”
These weather people and their station managers, it seems, need a few lessons in reputation management. Their ongoing credibility depends on it.
The first lesson is never over-sell and under deliver. In this case, overhyping a spring storm knowing that weather predictions are an inexact science is just irresponsible.
Admit when you’re wrong. The public appreciates it, and it goes a long way to maintaining credibility. In this case, there’s no legal issue with getting the forecast wrong, so just cop to it.
And finally, don’t use a news event to attract more customers, or in this instance, more viewers. That’s disingenuous. People will use social media to rebel; you’ll lose viewers in the long run, and possibly fail to adequately prepare them for real weather events.
Gil Rudawsky heads the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. He is a former reporter and editor. Read his blog or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.