Ten Deadly Sins Of TV Severe Weather Coverage

| March 18, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

Let me say up front we are far from perfect here, and have much to learn when it comes to long form severe weather coverage. But, on the other hand, we have been doing it for a long time, and we have learned things. I present my list of ten “deadly sins” when it comes to TV weather coverage.

Your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

10. Not knowing the geography of your market. When you tell someone a tornado is 14 miles southwest of Anytown, U.S.A… they generally have no idea what that means. But, if you can tell people a tornado is near a barbeque joint, restaurant, shopping center, a truck stop, or even a place like a big barn or a farm in a rural area, they get it. I am stunned by many TV meteorologists that have zero knowledge of their market outside the big cities. Here is an idea… get out and speak to school kids every day. And, don’t always drive on the Interstate highways. Take the roads less traveled…. where people actually live. Remember what you see… and use that knowledge next time you are working severe weather coverage. If you really do this job right, you will work long hard hours without much sleep. But, the rewards are worth it.

9. Freaking out on the air if you have a live video shot of a tornado. I think all of us have seen live tornadoes on tower cameras and via streams from spotters. There is no need for you to raise your voice and pitch a hissy fit. Just calmly tell people what they are seeing, and what they need to do. Flapping your arms and screaming is no way to communicate during an emergency. Your calm demeanor will keep the public level headed, and give them a better chance of doing the right thing when a tornado is approaching. Being stern and serious is good, but going ballistic is bad.

8. Talking about things you don’t understand. I have heard some TV weather people throw out terms like “rear flank downdraft”, “hail spike”, “storm relative helicity”, “instability”, “debris ball”, “upper air disturbances”, etc… and it is clear they have no idea what they are really talking about. It is OK that you don’t know everything about the process of severe convection; there is so much we ALL don’t understand. Tell the people what you know, and don’t tell them what you don’t know.

7. Telling people, either when you are on the air, or in station promotion spots, you “save lives”. In our April 27, 2011 event, it is clear that we DID NOT save 252 lives that day. Yes, we have an important role, but the “life saving” process involves many players, and we don’t need to go tooting our horn. We are not as good as we think we are. There is work to do in making the warning process better. Remember, severe weather coverage is NOT ABOUT YOU. It is about serving others, in a humble way.

6. Ignoring people in your DMA (designated market area) that are in rural areas. The easiest thing to do is interrupt regular programming when there is a tornado threat in big cities, but I am stunned at how many local stations don’t provide long form coverage when the tornado threat is in a sparsely populated area. Are the lives of these people any less valuable that those who live in cities? No, we won’t provide long form coverage for rural counties OUT of our DMA (these people can’t watch us on TV even if they wanted to), but we will always be on the air when a tornado warned storm is in the market. And, if you can’t talk management into doing this, at least go on your live stream.

5. Not simulcasting your coverage on local radio station groups. Commercial radio is still a crucial way of reaching people out in severe weather, especially in their cars. If you don’t have an agreement with a station group, get one together. This is a win-win for everyone. And, when you do have a radio station simulcast going, be sure and remember many people are listening via radio, and they can’t see what others see on the TV side. Be descriptive.

4. Using ONLY radar during severe weather coverage. We have learned that many people don’t react to radar images, but they will take action if they see a live video stream of a tornado or severe storm. Deploy cameras across your market (we call them SKYCAMs)… when Internet technology this is very easy to do. And, use trained spotters with live streams from their dash cams. People like John Brown, Mike Wilhelm, John Oldshue, and Ben Greer were real heroes on April 27, 2011 thanks to the video feeds they were able to send to the world. Using only radar, quite frankly, makes for boring television. Important, absolutely, but going to the field for live video of severe weather is a must.

3. No easy access to your live video stream. It should be easy to find on the main web page of your station, and on all your station apps. People don’t see it, they move along to the next station. I am shocked when I see a tornado warning in the heart of a TV market, and no local stations offer easy access to their live stream. I have searched web sites until I am blue in the face and I still can’t find it.

2. Streaming your live coverage in Flash, Silverlight, or ANY proprietary format ONLY. There are over 50 million iPhones, iPods, and iPads in the world, and streaming in Flash or Silverlight cuts these people out. And trust me, if they can’t see your live stream, they will find it somewhere else. We use uStream because it is universal… Flash, H.264, HTML5, etc. It works on ANY device. And, we pay uStream so ads don’t run. Your live stream should be accessible via an iPhone, iPad, iPod, Android device, Mac, PC, etc….

1. Staying OFF camera during severe weather coverage. No doubt this is the most widespread and serious problem we have today. The easiest thing to do is to “hide behind the equipment”. With all of the fancy computer graphics, radar software, and social media tools, the natural thing to do it get behind the console and work the equipment. But, you will never, ever be an effective communicator unless you look your audience in the eyes. Research after the historic April 27, 2011 outbreak shows over and over that people do react to the facial expression, and tone of voice of a TV meteorologist they know and trust. Get on the chroma-key wall and make eye contact with your audience. You can have a laptop with you on the big wall, and do everything you need to do using remote control apps. The little back rolling computer stand I use during tornado warnings just might be the most important piece of equipment we have around here.

Again, I stress to the TV weather world we are not as good as we think we are. Let’s ALL work together to get better, and make the severe weather warning process better. Our live coverage, both via the Internet and TV, is clearly the main way people get severe weather warnings. Let’s roll up our sleeves and do a better job.


Category: Hodgepodge

About the Author ()

James Spann is one of the most recognized and trusted television meteorologists in the industry. He holds the AMS CCM designation and television seals from the AMS and NWA. He is a past winner of the Broadcast Meteorologist of the Year from both professional organizations.

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