Many local broadcast meteorologists say that the national reporting on severe weather is out of control, with sloppy reporting and almost incessant hyping of events. What this is doing, they add, is spreading misinformation that may be desensitizing viewers to actual weather risk.
With perilous twisters heading his way on Jan. 23, 2012, James Spann, the chief meteorologist at ABC affiliate WCFT Birmingham, Ala., was on air all night urging folks to take cover from the tornadoes that eventually touched down just before dawn.
The tornados — which killed two, one a 16-year-old girl — made national news. But ABC News’ World News Tonight stunned Spann with its report. “The first words out of Diane Sawyer’s mouth were that a tornado hit Alabama with no warning,” he says. “I was flabbergasted.”
The next day, Spann, who has more than 200,000 Twitter followers, used the platform to challenge Sawyer to debate what really went down during those hours before the tornados hit.
The network ultimately responded by calling Spann and interviewing him for the second-day story.
But that wasn’t enough to shut Spann down.
Three-and-a-half years later, Spann may still be the most vocal — but in no way the only — local TV meteorologist with beefs about the way the Big Three are covering weather. They charge the networks with sloppy reporting and hyping weather events (“unprecedented” is a favorite descriptor) or both.
“No doubt national news media outlets are out of control when it comes to weather coverage, and their idiotic claims find their way to us on a daily basis,” adds Dan Satterfield, the chief meteorologist at WBOC, Draper Communications’ CBS affiliate in Salisbury, Md. “They tend to often get it wrong.”
Local broadcasters say the networks often go wrong when they fail to consult with them.
Spann, for instance, says national TV got the Houston floods story last May wrong by suggesting they were extraordinary, when, in fact, the city has a long history of such flooding.
“The networks just decided that this never happened before. That’s just idiotic,” he says, adding that the destructive flooding was a big enough story that it didn’t need hype.
“I don’t want to underplay the significance,” Spann says. “It was a big deal, but it was not unprecedented as they claim.”
Eric Fisher, the chief meteorologist for WBZ, the CBS O&Oin Boston — and a regular contributor to the CBS Evening News — has a similar gripe, which he says came through in the way national news covered Hurricane Sandy.
While indisputably powerful, the devastation caused by Sandy resulted from the storm hitting a heavily populated area rather than its sheer force. That fact was missed in many of the stories, he says.
“It was not a freak of nature,” Fisher says. “Not everything has to be the worst, or the biggest or unprecedented.”
Satterfield says news outlets were remiss in reporting New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s criticism of the National Weather Service for being “off” in forecasting the storm that dropped up to seven feet of lake effect snow on parts of the Buffalo last November. Cuomo blamed the faulty forecast for the state’s slow response.
“The reality is that it was one of the most amazing local snow events and the weather service hit it right on,” he says.
Networks also tend to follow a weather story formula that is tantamount to spreading misinformation, says Satterfield, who chairs the American Meteorological Society’s station scientists committee.
“In almost every report they end with saying ‘and more rain and more snow is on the way,’ and most of the time that’s just not true,” he says. “Every meteorologist in the country is rolling his eyes.”
All of which can be dangerous, they say.
“The headlines are desensitizing actual weather risk,” says Fisher. With stories sensationalizing weather events — claiming that, say, tens of millions of people are in the line of storms, for instance — increasingly common, viewers “start to tune them out.”
“My fear is what is going to happen when we have a genuine historic storm,” he says. “According to the networks, almost everything is historic. And that’s just not true.”
The misleading or outright inaccurate reporting comes as the networks are turning to weather more than ever before. Often, weather stories will lead the evening newscasts.
“It’s hard not to notice,” says Greg Carbin, who, as the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., works with broadcasters, and serves as a resource to the news media.
Carbin says it “was amazing how many weather stories there were” in a national newscast he watched in one week in June, especially considering there was plenty of big news including the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage and the capture of a New York prison escapee.
“They are looking for angles that keep people interested and make these stories exciting events even when they are far from high end,” he says. Many of the events covered — wildfires and floods, for instance — are not unusual, he says. “This is just weather we see in the summer.”
The locals, too, have noticed. “They found out what local news knows, and that is that is that people care about the weather,” Satterfield says. “That is pretty much the No. 1 thing that they watch.”
Adds Fisher: “Almost every day there is going to be something somewhere — a flood or a wildfire or a storm — that at very least is going to be visual. It’s an easy story.”
Spann concedes that he has often seen this weather hype at local stations, even his own. “But I have a rather easy walk to the newsroom, and at my shop news managers are very open to listening to my input, and have responded beautifully.
“Are we perfect? No. But, this summer, there has not been one occasion when one of our news anchors declared a routine hot summer day as a ‘heat emergency,’ and there have been no tips given on the air like ‘go into an air conditioned room.’”
The networks do have some built-in resources to help with weather reporting.
Spann and Satterfield say they are big fans of Good Morning America meteorologist Ginger Zee, who also serves as ABC News’ weather editor. “She is a brilliant scientist,” says Spann, who worked with Zee when she was an intern at his station.
But “Ginger can only do so much,” Spann says. “She can’t control the news.”
CBS — the only one of the Big Three that doesn’t have a network weathercaster — relies very heavily on its O&O meteorologists like Fisher to do national reports, says David Friend, the CBS station group’s SVP of news.
And they all try to get it right, Friend says. There are “no barriers” between him and CBS News President David Rhodes.
WCBS New York’s Lonnie Quinn, WBBM Chicago’s Megan Glaros and KTVT Dallas-Ft. Worth’s Scott Padgett are among the local meteorologists who have done weather stories for CBS’s national newscasts.
In using station weathercasters, CBS News is capitalizing on local broadcasters’ edge in weather coverage, Friend says. “They can put it all into perspective for a national audience. That is key.”
But that’s not a substitute for a staff meteorologist, Spann says. “I can make suggestions to the news department and journalists, but the ultimate product is way out of my hands.”
Satterfield believes most national weather stories aren’t even vetted by meteorologists, let alone written by them.
“I get the feeling that sometimes producers don’t worry much about the facts of a weather story, but would be alarmed to find out that they got a name or other facts wrong in a story about a politician, etc.,” he says. “In other words, it’s an easy filler story.”
While he’s not privy to the behind-the-scenes processes of producing network news, Spann says he does know something is awry. “Almost every night they report on a ‘monster storm’ with ’80 million people in the path’ with ‘no warning’ that are ‘unprecedented.’ And they tell their views of ‘heat emergencies’ that don’t exist.
“Constant hyperbole over non-events dulls people’s senses. They won’t listen to us when there is really a dangerous storm that is a threat to life.”
It just goes against the grain of what TV news is supposed to be, Spann adds. “I thought part of journalism is getting it right.”
This is the second part of a three-part special report on weather. Part one was a Q&A with AccuWeather founder Joel Myers and part three on weather tech will appear on Thursday. You can read all the stories here.