Of course, WENY Elmira, N.Y., last Sunday did the right thing when it pre-empted the final minutes of the World Cup to warn the public of life-threatening tornadoes in the area, despite the nasty carping of soccer fans. But stations have a parallel duty not to sensationize its servere weather reporting or issue unwarranted warnings. Crying wolf is its own danger.
Jessell: To Warn Or Not To Warn Is Weather Question
One of the truly negative consequences of the internet is that it has given a global voice to what H.L. Mencken called the booboisie, the vast class of Americans who seem to revel in their stupidity and ignorance.
I was reminded of this last Sunday by the vitriol that spilled out against Lilly Broadcasting’s WENY Elmira, N.Y., on social media because the station pre-empted the final minutes of the World Cup to warn the public of life-threatening tornadoes in the area.
Although I don’t appreciate soccer, I understand why those that do were upset to miss the final minutes of a game that was the culmination of a month-long, 32-team tournament and four years of qualifying rounds and anticipation.
Here are just a few examples of the reaction to the preemption that popped on Twitter.
- “Hope a tornado smacks their fucking station you pricks?”
- “I WILL KILL YOU GO BACK TO THE WORLD CUP”
- “@WENTTV eat a bag of dicks”
As just about any broadcaster will tell you, you don’t have to pre-empt a big event like the World Cup to stir up this type. Any old show will do it.
I called WENY GM Douglas Beers to get a fuller account of the reaction to the pre-emption. In addition to the social media, he said he personally received several emails and voice mails with messages “not fit for broadcast.”
But I was encouraged to learn that the booboisie has not yet taken over the country.
Beers said the overwhelming reaction was positive. Hundreds used the station’s Facebook page to express gratitude to the station and Chief Meteorologist Joe Veres for the timely reporting and warnings to take cover.
“The policy of the station is to keep viewers safe,” Beers said. “That’s what we do. That’s what we stand behind and we never apologize for that.”
Good for WENY. That’s the right policy for stations whether in DMA 1 or DMA 174.
On Thursday, we ran a story (part of a series on severe weather reporting this week) about the National Weather Service’s upgrade of its 170 station Doppler radar stations across the country.
With its new dual-polarization radar network, trained meteorologists can track tornados and other severe weather as never before. It can show where a tornado touches down and predict where it might go next.
It’s extraordinary, but of little value if broadcasters don’t relay the warnings in a timely fashion to their viewers. Keeping the viewers informed of danger is the first duty of all stations. Keeping them amused is a distant second.
NAB chief spokesman Dennis Wharton, who likes to trumpet the triumphs of broadcasters, said Veres is now “his personal hero for reminding people of what it means to be a local broadcaster.
“There are more important things than watching soap operas and a soccer match, and saving a life is one of those things.”
The threat in Elmira last Sunday evening was apparently so real that the decision to preempt was relatively easy. But that is not always the case. Sometimes the danger is not so clear and present. That’s make it a harder call, especially when what’s being preempted generates the kind of passion that the World Cup does.
In less serious situations, stations do have options. They can run a scroll across the bottom of the screen or go to a split screen. If they are airing a diginet on a subchannel, they can move the regularly scheduled programming to a subchannel so that they can stick with the weather on the main channel. We’ve seen this done in New York and Philadelphia when big storms are threatening.
For WENY, shifting ABC’s telecast of the World Cup to subchannels wasn’t even an option, Beers said. The station airs CBS on one and CW Plus on another. He said CBS would “have had my kiester” if he had preempted their programming for ABC’s. Besides, he said, the station couldn’t deny viewers of the subchannels the same warnings that viewers of the main channel got.
Beers said that the station made no on-air response to the blowback. All this week, it simply followed the story, reporting on the destruction that the weather left behind and the affected families.
I’m not sure I would have shown such restraint. If I were sitting on the WENY anchor desk, I think I would have gone off as anchor Nancy Naeve did on KSFY Sioux Falls, S.D., after a similar incident in May.
“No show is as important as someone’s life,” Naeve told viewers. “But I tell you what. If it was your home and your neighbors, you would feel differently. So please don’t do that. That’s not nice.”
Naeve rant was posted to YouTube where it has 528,508 views to date.
Where some (many?) stations are open to valid criticism is in their over-hyping of weather threats to boost the news ratings.
In another segment of our severe weather series, Greg Carbin of the National Weather Service scolded broadcasters for their tendency to sensationalize the weather. “[I]t’s a danger in that sensationalism works the same way false alarms do in that it can numb people to the risk. And so when a bad day comes it may be difficult to separate the real dangers from the ones that are not.”
Stations need to be particularly sensitive to the downside of hype because of another thing that Carbin talked about — confirmation bias.
” ou tell someone that they are in danger, but they still are going to take the time to confirm it,” Carbin explained.
“[I]t’s one of the huge challenges we face because these storms are going to come pretty quick and you are not going to have a lot of time to take actions that are going to save your life. A confirmation could come in the form of a violent tornado.”
So stations have two duties when it comes to severe weather: To report the threats that are real and to not report threats created literally out of thin air.
My friend Mencken also said, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed…by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
You don’t want this ever to be said of broadcasting.