Many TV meteorologists have a big gripe with Facebook after being caught off-guard by a change in policy that hampers the reach of their vital weather alerts. According to the weathercasters, people who follow someone’s professional Facebook page don’t automatically get their posts in their newsfeeds, the way they would a friend’s. Instead, Facebook determines who gets what using a complex algorithm, essentially shutting most people out. Companies can pay to boost their reach, but even then, the broadcasters say, they still would reach very few of their followers.
As an outbreak of violent tornados moved through Alabama on April 27, 2011, James Spann, the chief meteorologist at ABC affiliate WCFT Birmingham, was in full-blown emergency mode, using all means possible to tell locals to take cover. Spann issued his urgent warnings on-air, online and on Facebook, assuming they would reach his 150,000-plus followers.
But after the horrific storms hit, leaving 252 Alabamans dead, Spann learned that his Facebook strategy didn’t work, as only a small percentage of the people he spent years courting actually got his alerts.
“Everyone who likes the page assumes they are going to get weather warnings in their news feeds and they won’t,” says Spann. “When you post a critical message, and you have 160,000 people who like your page but you’re reaching only 8,000, you’ve got a problem.”
Spann is one of a number of TV meteorologists who have a big gripe with Facebook after being caught off-guard by a change in policy that hampers their reach.
According to the weathercasters, people who follow someone’s professional Facebook page don’t automatically get their posts in their newsfeeds, the way they would a friend’s. Instead, Facebook determines who gets what using a complex algorithm weighing nearly 100,000 factors, essentially shutting most people out. Companies can pay to boost their reach, but even then, the broadcasters say, they still would reach very few of their followers.
Facebook did not return requests for information.
“Facebook is our biggest nemesis some days,” says Brad Panovich, the chief meteorologist at Gannett-owned NBC affiliate WCNC Charlotte, N.C. (DMA 25).
“As a news organization, you hope you can get vital information out that is not filtered or going through some sort of algorithm,” Panovich says. He believes outlets that distribute emergency information should be exempt from Facebook’s rules.
So today, after investing years in wooing followers, broadcasters are trying to undo the work they’ve done touting the virtues of Facebook for severe weather warnings.
They are doing that in a number of ways. Spann, for instance, blitzed fans with pleas to follow him through his personal Facebook account, which doesn’t restrict newsfeed output like his station page does. He’s up to about 140,000 followers on that. Spann also advises individuals in storm-prone states to get weather radio apps on their phones.
Dan Satterfield, chief meteorologist at WBOC, Draper Communications’ CBS affiliate in Salisbury, Md. (DMA 142), has changed his Facebook strategy as well. He now uses the platform to drive users to the station’s website.
As chairman of the American Meteorological Society’s station scientists committee, Satterfield is also addressing the issue on an industry-wide level, urging others in the business to steer their followers away from the platform. “There are some real problems,” Satterfield says. “We are really worried.”
Before severe weather outbreaks, Panovich posts a “how-to” video on YouTube explaining how social media users can actually find his weather warnings.
Facebook is giving meteorologists grief in other ways too.
The platform, they say, has become a haven for amateur meteorologists, many of who have garnered large followings putting out bogus forecasts that the pros then have to debunk.
“We are spending more and more of our time dispelling rumors and hype and non-storms instead of talking about the real ones,” Panovich says. A false blizzard forecast sparks public angst — and warrants official response — in the same way a false bomb threat does, he says.
That was particularly apparent earlier this year, when two erroneous forecasts threw believers into tizzies.
One called for blizzard-like conditions on the East Coast, a full two weeks before it was supposed to hit. Meteorologists had a kid reading dummy weather models to thank for that one, they say. The other called for snow blanketing the South, courtesy of some guy in Russellville, Ala.
“It drove every weather guy crazy for about a week trying to dispel these rumors,” says Satterfield, who refers to the episode as the Fake Facebook Blizzard of 2014.
“Anyone who tells you that you there is going to be blizzard two weeks out is a fool and knows nothing about meteorology.”
But that’s not necessarily what the public wants to hear, he says.
“You tell people it’s a hoax and they get mad at you, thinking that you’re hiding something,” Satterfield says, adding that the more dire the forecast, the more popular. “If you want to get a lot of likes, put out a lot of horrible end of the world information”
Unfortunately, other social media platforms — Twitter and Google+ — aren’t the perfect solutions. Neither, for instance, has the reach of Facebook, which attracts older and rural viewers, they say. Twitter feeds move so quickly, that it’s easy for a user to miss key tweets.
And then there are issues like the one Brad Travis, the meteorologist at WAFF, the Raycom-owned NBC affiliate in Huntsville, Ala. (DMA 79), is dealing with. They involve weather buffs, including other broadcasters, “bombarding” Twitter with faulty forecasts for markets they are not in.
“They send out all these images of doom and gloom in areas they aren’t responsible for and they are really not held accountable for that,” Travis says.
“For someone to try to cover weather outside their DMA is getting out of their knowledge area,” Travis says, adding his belief that they do it to increase exposure.
“They are crossing the lines.”
Travis says a recent forecast out of Oklahoma that called for a tornado outbreak in his viewing area took valuable time away from work, as he had to field emails and phone calls from people concerned about looming danger.
“It causes a panic amongst my viewers and I have to deal with that instead of dealing with the actual forecasts,” says Travis, who limits his own forecasts to his area of responsibility: northern Alabama and one county in Tennessee.
Travis has also had problems with people re-tweeting old information, something he now counters by making sure all his posts are dated.
“In the spring, someone was sharing a timeline that I made for a severe weather outbreak that was for Tuesday and Tuesday was coming around,” he says. What readers didn’t realize is that the Tuesday he was referring had come and gone a month ago.
Yet there is little recourse for guys like Travis, particularly in cases when colleagues are the culprits.
“It’s hard to try to tell another person in your profession not to do something,” he says. “It needs to be more of a professional courtesy to not infringe on an area if you have no real business outside of just covering the weather.”
This is the first part of TVN’s Severe Weather special report. You can read the other parts here.