Why do people watch the local weather report, anyway? That was the question floating just below the surface of last week’s 40th annual broadcast meteorology conference in Boston. Just like their print counterparts, local news stations are being buffeted by the winds of online innovation, and weather is particularly vulnerable. Today, detailed forecasts are just a few clicks away. So why would anyone bother to tune in at 6 or 11?
Nearly every meteorologist we heard from came back to the same answer: trust. As D.C.-area meteorologist Joe Witte noted, local TV news consistently remains the most trusted source of information, even as the public’s trust in cable news and other media sources has steadily declined.
What drives this public trust? In his conference presentation, WJLA meteorologist Bob Ryan had some answers. Ryan postulated that the familiarity of a face keeps viewers coming back. “Local trusts local” was a phrase heard frequently at the conference, and perhaps it explains why people stick with their local weather reporter over digital (and faceless) alternatives.
But it’s clear that our relationship with local meteorologists goes beyond just a familiar face. Because at times of danger, weathercasters help people make important decisions in a way that raw data cannot. In his presentation, Ryan emphasized the importance of clear and unambiguous language in the face of danger. He listed numerous examples of weathercasters around the nation saving lives by removing ambiguity and laying out consequences of bad decisions when tornadoes, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events are on the horizon. “Words have meaning,” Ryan told the audience. Viewers rely on metorologists to help them make decisions in the face of uncertain risk. There is, essentially, no online equivalent to a meteorologist staring into the camera and saying “If you go outside and look you will die.”
While few meteorologists seem willing to make the connection, the communication capabilities required for extreme weather events are analogous to how weathercasters should talk about climate change. The science is clear — our carbon pollution is poisoning the weather. Climate change has already harmed Americans with greater floods, droughts, and heat waves. Burning fossil fuels comes with a terrible price, one that is growing at an exponential rate.
Weathercasters are in a unique position to communicate the clear and present danger of human-induced climate change. But being a climatecaster can also help them to beat back the challenge of digital media. Viewers tune into their local weather report because their meteorologist provide perspectives behind the numbers. Carol Lynn Alpert of the Museum of Science in Boston presented on her experience integrating scientific content into local station broadcasts.. The Museum conducted a double blind study, and found that scientific reports were highly rated by viewers, and among the most popular programming. People are fascinated with the drivers of weather. Helping them understand the impact of climate change, especially locally, gives weathercasters an advantage in an increasingly fractured media landscape.
Again and again we heard murmurs from TV meteorologists about the generational differences in consuming weather information, and suggestions as to how the profession might adapt to serve very different audiences, including a lengthy presentation from CNN meteorologist Sarah Dillingham about building and maintaining a social media presence.
But if you ask us, maintaining the prominence of local weather reports isn’t just about mastering Twitter or Facebook. It also requires providing audiences with clear information about the science, risks, and threats associated with extreme weather and local climate change impacts, and drawing a tangible connection for their viewers. This idea was reinforced at the “short course” for the station scientist, which concluded the conference. John Anderson of the New England Aquarium discussed how to relate stories of a warming and acidifying ocean to audiences in fishing communities and coastal areas. A Q+A panel on climate change followed, and climate scientists John Abraham, Kerry Emanuel, and Kevin Trenberth gave tips for how best to communicate climate impacts. “You’re all used to dealing with probability; we’re talking about the same thing with events like drought,” said Trenberth.
Following the conference, the AMS released a long-awaited update to its information statement on climate change, which states that “There is unequivocal evidence that Earth’s lower atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; sea level is rising; and snow cover, mountain glaciers, and Arctic sea ice are shrinking. The dominant cause of the warming since the 1950s is human activities.”
The AMS has it right. But the question remains, when viewers tune into their local weather will they get the same message? The answer may have a big impact on whether those viewers keep coming back. If the competitive advantage of local weather reporters is viewer trust and clear communication, then the conclusion for broadcast meteorologists is apparent: to ensure the continued relevance of their profession, not to mention the well-being of their viewers, TV meteorologists must forecast the facts about climate change.