More TV Meteorologists Should Be Brought Into SEJ's "Big Tent"

July 15, 2010

E-Reporting Biz

By BUD WARD

TV meteorologists are famously at ease before the cameras, regularly making repeated weather news reports throughout the day, and generally handling the most intense, and audiencedrawing, storm news with savoir-faire, albeit with obvious pulsing excitement in many cases.

But when they become the focus of news, things can get interesting.

Recently, more attention has focused on broadcast meteorologists and weathercasters — the distinctions are important, and will be clarified later — and their sometimes-dismissive attitudes toward climate change science.

The subject is not exactly a new one. SEJ's current president, Christy George, with her Oregon Public Broadcasting colleagues, produced in 2008 a full documentary, "Forecast Cloudy," exploring meteorologists' often divergent attitudes toward what most mainstream climatologists understand of climate science.

But that was something of an early exception. SEJ freelance writer and SEJournal Assistant Editor Bill Dawson that same month produced a story headlined "Why Are So Many TV Meteorologists and Weathercasters Climate 'Skeptics'?" for the online publication I edit, The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media.

More recently, Columbia Journalism Review in January/ February of this year published "Hot Air: Why Don't TV Weathermen Believe in Climate Change?" by a Washington Monthly editor, Charles Homans, helping to fan the fires in journalism circles.

As so often is the case, however, a piece in March by The New York Times' Leslie Kaufman — a straightforward news piece, "Among Weathercasters, Doubt on Warming" — provoked something of a national buzz. Suddenly, prime-time network evening news programs and late-night cable television programming showed interest, often pitching the split between climatologists and meteorologists as deeply seated battle royal. (For a riotous laugh, be sure to see Stephen Colbert's "Science Catfight" piece pitting an AccuWeather meteorologist against a Union of Concerned Scientists scientist.)

So, what goes?

The immediate peg for the Times piece by Kaufman was the release by George Mason University researchers of a National Science Foundation-funded study of TV meteorologists' attitudes toward climate change. (The same researchers hope to soon make public their survey of local TV news directors' attitudes on the issue. Now that should be really interesting!) Some key findings from that study, available online here:

  • 94 percent of 571 respondents said they work at stations having no staff covering science or environmental issues full-time.
  • 87 percent of respondents said they "had in some way discussed climate change as part of their duties," many of them through off-air community presentations.
  • Slightly more than one-third said they discuss climate change during on-air weathercasts, with 62 percent saying they likely will continue to do so at about the same rate and about one-quarter saying they would like to do so more frequently.
  • About 54 percent said they think "global warming is happening," but only 31 percent said human activities are largely responsible. "Natural changes in the environment" were cited by 63 percent as the principal cause.
  • More than one quarter "agreed with the statement by a prominent TV weathercaster [John Coleman of KUSI-TV in San Diego, whom the study did not specifically name] that 'global warming is a scam.'"

Based on an ongoing series of TV meteorologists' workshops on climate science, funded by the McCormick Foundation of Chicago and by the Grantham Foundation of Boston through grants to Yale University (and directed by the author of this column), one can draw several preliminary conclusions:

1) Meteorologists and weathercasters indeed appear to be disproportionately skeptical of what climate experts often consider to be well understood – that the Earth is warming and that human activities have a significant role in that warming.

2) That may not be so surprising. Meteorology and climatology are in fact distinctly different sciences and areas of study, despite some overlaps. Would you go to a pediatrician if what you really needed is a podiatrist? Or to an auto mechanic to fix your home's plumbing? So why go to a meteorologist for a long-term prediction, or to a climatologist for a hint about your vacation weather a week from now?

3) While there are hard-core and highly vocal (and visible) meteorologists who are "contrarians" or die-hard "skeptics," many more appear to be, in the context of an election, "undecided" or "independent" … and certainly educable and open-minded.

4) There appear to be few TV meteorologists or weathercasters nationally (perhaps two dozen or so?) who are a) convinced by the scientific evidence that climate change is happening and that humans play a role in that warming and b) actively engaged in education and outreach — on- or off-air — in making their views known.

5) Meteorologists interested in learning more about climate change often want to better understand a few key points:

a. The differences between climate models and weather models, including strengths and limitations of each;

b. The roles of water vapor and of clouds, and the scientific understanding of each as they may affect warming;

c. Scientific understanding of the relationship between a warmer climate and serious or extreme (the term meteorologists like here is "anomalous") weather incidents — hurricanes, floods, droughts, wild fires, etc.; and

d. The relative role of the sun and of solar radiance in warming.

By the way, meteorologists and weathercasters are not exactly alike. Weathercasters, more common in smaller market stations, may not have formal science or meteorology degrees. Meteorologists, most commonly found on TV in larger markets, have a bachelors and often a masters degree in meteorology and perhaps also some professional certification.

In addition, meteorologists are, let's not forget, human beings, at least in so much as reporters and editors are. They don't like being talked down to, and there's little question that some high-powered and pedigreed climatologists can be faulted for having taken just such a condescending approach.

Another point: For many Americans, the local TV meteorologist — along with being the reason most people tune in local news in the first place — is the only "scientist" they see in a given day. They often are the brunt of criticism when they get forecasts wrong. But meteorologists tend to be trusted. As their "station scientist," as AMS likes to describe them, that makes them potentially powerful and influential communicators, on air and off air, as climate change educators.

TV meteorologists, the focus of discussion in recent SEJ list serve discussions, should be a potential group to target for SEJ membership. While it isn't clear just how much of SEJ's activities may actually appeal to many time-constrained and weatherfocused TV meteorologists and weathercasters, there's little question that the organization's extensive resources on climate change science and policy reporting should be of interest to this group

Capturing more TV meteorologists' attention, dues, and conference time may not be easy for SEJ's membership committee. But both SEJ and the broadcast meteorology community could benefit from more collaboration and greater shared understanding of each other's needs and interests.

Bud Ward is an independent journalist, educator and founder/ former editor of Environment Writer. He is editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

* From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer  2010 issue. 

BUD WARD