Jessell: To Warn Or Not To Warn Is Weather Question

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.

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.

But really?

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?”
  • “@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.

Related Story  Cindy Bernal Named KULX News Anchor

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.

Related Story  Dow Moves Up 92, Nasdaq Climbs 53

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.

Comments (14)

Leave a Reply

Joy Lindsey says:

July 18, 2014 at 3:32 pm

I have said for years… have a policy that is shared with viewers. If you consistently stick to it, there are no issues.

Josh Welby says:

July 18, 2014 at 3:48 pm

Rentrak has seen the power of weather on local TV viewing. You can check out what we have learned at my blog, http://www.BruceGoerlich.Com. Search for Weather and Hurricane Sandy.

Bruce Goerlich- Chief Research Officer Rentrak

Mary Collin says:

July 18, 2014 at 4:29 pm

This is a great article and where we all came from and hope to get back to..

Sandy Hinkle says:

July 18, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Truth is the value of weather broadcasts by TV stations is GREATLY exaggerated and is used merely as a political ploy for broadcasters to keep their old and outdated rules that benefit them and harm consumers. I was in areas affected by Hurricane Arthur recently, and I didn’t watch TV ONCE for weather. I had all of the information I needed — more than enough actually — using the following weather apps — The Weather Channel, My Radar, Yahoo Weather, Chart Explorer, Weather, and Living Earth. I knew when the hurricane was going to hit, where it was going to hit, what the weather details were going to be, where the alerts and warnings were and for how long, and whether I needed to evacuate. I didn’t need to watch local TV once! And truthfully, when the power went out, I still had my apps!

    Wagner Pereira says:

    July 19, 2014 at 1:08 am

    And that works great after the Hurricane for 8 or so hours before the backup batteries on the cable routers die – or the emergency generators run out of fuel at the cell sites – not to mention that at about 90 MPH the DBS dishes are blown off their J poles. Let’s see how well your internet works then!

    Wagner Pereira says:

    July 19, 2014 at 1:10 am

    BTW, only 50% of the people in USA have a smartphone or tablet. As you are mentioning apps like My Radar and Living Earth (and Living Earth tells you nothing about Hurricanes), clearly you are speaking of Apps for Smartphones.

    John Murray says:

    July 21, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    Hey, SmlCblGuy (a/k/a ACA spokesman), tell that to the 7 million people who lost power (and, as a result, connectivity) thanks to Hurricane Sandy. Once the power went out, those people still had their apps too… but they were useless, just like yours were when your power went out.

    Janet Frankston Lorin says:

    July 22, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Let me repeat…”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.

kendra campbell says:

July 19, 2014 at 9:13 am

There is no question WENY did the right thing. However, the bigger issue is the almost daily weather hype many (not all) stations practice. The “Chicken Little” routine has become a bad joke. It’s no surprise it will occasionally backfire.

    Mark Reed says:

    July 22, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    I agree with jd here.
    Oh, And that little portable DTv I have is useless after about 2 hours when the battery goes dead. Not everyone keeps a 12vx54 amp hour battery on hand to keep it going ..

Patrick Schooley says:

July 21, 2014 at 2:46 pm

Here’s an idea… When weather strikes, run a crawl on your primary station, and interrupt your .2 or .3 with the coverage. Giving people the CHOICE to switch to it if they would like too.

Robert Vincent says:

July 21, 2014 at 3:07 pm

There is a public safety clause in the station FCC license. If they chose not to break into coverage of the game and people died, it would be a valid reason not to renew the license and surrender it to someone else. But a lot of stations use that clause to be scarecasters. Doom and gloom, chicken little, the sky is falling, you can die scare tactics are the lifeblood of events happening during the sweeps. So you will see scaremongering during this period more than ever. As for the story about the new dual pole radar, there are other systems being researched in Norman, OK. that will have a greater impact on micro-forecasting. The CASA system has had promising results where it has been deployed. A few years ago this couple died while staying in an RV next to their home during a major renovation. An un-warned, un-forecast tornado popped up during a thunderstorm and picked up their rig and tossed it blocks away. Both died in the incident. So the OU weather school and various government agencies have developed a radar system that uses smaller dish networks to find the ones that are not seen by the high power units. These dishes sit on cellphone towers and roofs of businesses. They pinpoint the tornado vortex signature faster and then can automatically activate warning systems in that immediate area. So in the case of the couple in the RV, it would have seen the tornado that was not seen on conventional radar and it would have triggered the storm sirens and the couple would have had time to get into their home which was just moderately damaged but still stood.

E B says:

July 22, 2014 at 10:29 am

Like JD Shaw said: hype hype hype.

Ronnie Clark says:

July 22, 2014 at 10:43 am

What happened to the plan to use a digital sidechannel (something you’d have to make satellite carry, granted) for either the breaking weather coverage or the otherwise-pre-empted program(s)?

More News