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The bad weather journalism thread: A catchall for the lolz (Polar Vortex, El Nino storms, etc)


JamieO
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Figured this would be a fun thread...

 

I'll kick it off with this: 

http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/2016/01/16/Saturday-Diary-Cheer-up-people-Pittsburgh-is-sunnier-than-you-think/stories/201601160031

 

My response I emailed her, yeah I know, it's long:

 

Hello Diana,

Having both lived in Pittsburgh and worked for AccuWeather dealing with the media as a communications coordinator, I read your article today on how weather records are wrong and knew I had to respond to it. I've been a big fan of your writing for years (Walkabout, etc), but this column was an extremely frustrating read. I'll break it down as to why what you wrote is problematic.
 
First things first, weather is a science, and you cannot apply subjective opinion (with an obvious agenda) to it because how you perceive weather will be different than others. What you might see as a lovely day with a storm in the afternoon could be seen as a day when an outdoor wedding was ruined. That's why National Weather Service and cooperative observers have standards for more accurate data (weather forecasting is a science). For example, how did you get your temperature reading? How do you know that was the high temperature (I notice you don't have exact readings)? In addition, one year of weather data proves nothing. What you're saying does have validity (even if you attacked the wrong target, more on that below). But going on one year doesn't work. What if I used last December as evidence that Decembers are ALWAYS mild, or used last February that February is ALWAYS bitter cold? That argument would get destroyed within a few years. This past December was very cloudy and foggy as well here in central PA...I could turn around and say December is always foggy and cloudy, based on that one year.
 
Also, the way you wrote it was very very problematic. It's not the NWS saying Pittsburgh is gloomy, it's how people are writing about the data. I've worked in the news media before, I know the reputation it has is unfair, but what you wrote about the NWS is equally unfair. They fight against a public who believes they are never right, and they are right much more often then they miss forecasts. But the public believes they don't know what they are doing, often thinking somehow they know better, and you've added to it. NWS employees work extremely hard to save lives (yes, save lives), are very dedicated, and stuff like what you just wrote is discouraging.
 
And this is actually a real public safety issue. How can that be? Because countless people are hurt or even die each year because they ignore weather warnings based on the myth that the NWS doesn't know what they are doing. I learned this working at AccuWeather, and I also learned that often media articles (like yours) contribute to this. It's an issue the NWS has been trying to address for years now. Not to mention the unfortunate skepticism towards science that is growing in our society, and the skepticism toward climate change, which is group stupidity and ignorance on a positively medieval scale. Note the comments already showing up in your article.

I can guarantee, your article will be extremely frustrating to any meteorologist who sees it. How frustrating? Think someone wrote an article about how people on social media who write "I hope Trump make liberals loose their mind" are better writers than the pros because that's the proper use of "loose". Then triple that.

I agree with your overall premise, just by choosing the wrong target, you've added to a rather serious problem that the NWS is working hard to correct. Perhaps something in the future about how accurate the NWS really is, or the efforts they put in despite budget cuts and public misconception to meet their core mission of protecting life and property? I know that goes against the narrative that the public and many in the media has created, but it would go a long way towards dispelling the myth.
 
Thanks for reading and considering.
 

 

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Meh. I see her point, the use of sunshine minutes was a better gauge, but we got rid of all those sunshine recorders and no one has cared to bring them back. Calling a day that's BKN250 all day "mostly cloudy" can be deceiving especially if it's not an opaque cloud layer. They used to record opaqueness too, but not anymore. ASOS, you know...

That said, since they use the same standards at all service level A stations, PIT should be comparable to other major cities. AVL is not comparable however... I'm just not sure if she took her 212 from the last years F6's. If she did, then it really isn't apples to apples.

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  • 3 weeks later...
  • 2 weeks later...

It's not a bad journalism issue specifically or a response to JamieO's post directly, but one thing mentioned in that letter is something I've liked to point out from time to time to the guys here because it hits on something that, although I think you guys kind of tend to reject it whenever it comes up, but the perception that the public has (and the public absolutely does have this perception) that NWS doesn't know what it's doing, is very real, and is still directly tied to the way NWS releases weather information and warnings. 

 

And I know I'm aiming this at Tony a little (sorry!) since I think you used to write some of these?  But the terror-inducing text of warnings/alerts/statements/watches whatever, the urgency of them, etc. and the frequency with which they're based on "possibilities" rather than "likely outcomes" has the effect of terrorizing anyone who actually reads them (which used to be few people, but now in the smartphone age is most people) because they will read every line in that text and read "This is what is going to happen to me."  In most cases, most of what is in that text is NOT "what happens to me"  And after enough times of being terrorized by that text, people just ignore them and assume "they always say the sky is falling, it doesn't mean anything."  Most people I knew completely ignored Sandy telling me "oh, it's no big deal."  Most of them were stunned after the 2014 ice storm, having no idea such a thing was even expected.  They became immune to the "boy who cries wolf".  Worse, after all that, then some big localized weather event DOES happen that wasn't forecast in advance, say, the hail storm of 2014 (I might be wrong on that one, I can't remember if it was forecast in advance or not), or the wind storm of...what was it, March 2011? 2012?  and that cements everyone's opinion that "those guys have no idea what their doing."  Add in some blown or nowcasted winter or summer pop-up showers.  I'm as likely to complain about the forecast variability but I have to defend you guys to a lot of people - and that's mostly due to meeting you guys on these boards - before meeting all of you, I was in the camp that was convinced you have no idea what you're doing either ;)

 

Now, you guys KNOW weather events terrify me, so I'm likely to ALWAYS believe the sky is falling the moment the text implies it is (or sometimes the model data indicates it might) I'm sure I've been the brunt of one or more water cooler jokes talking about "those people" :mellow:  I admit it.  ^_^

 

But after the spams of extreme danger take shelter immediately there's a thunderstorm in June, Even *I* ignore half the warnings now as meaningless unless it's a hurricane or ice/snow storm or bitter cold.   Now, you guys know me.  You KNOW how excitable I am by weather events.  If *I* end up ignoring the threats....that should be a humongous eye opener that something just may very well be wrong with them.

 

I know it probably falls on deaf ears, and nobody wants to hear the criticisms. There will be the defenses of "but it saves lives!"  Maybe.  But it also contributes to the perception that NWS warnings aren't to be taken seriously or verbatim and that NWS has no idea what it's doing.  And ultimately that does the opposite of save lives.  Heck, I'm open to be a sounding board for thoughts, ideas, or what's wrong with it, or how public perception interprets things you guys see differently but if something doesn't change with the way information is presented to the public, the reputation that NWS can safely be ignored, will not go away.

 

Just my semi-annual PSA on what IS a very important topic, whether it's ever listened to or not. :)

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From the "What you meant ain't what you said" file...

 

I found this clanger on NJ.com.

 

The headline:  Wind chill warnings in effect as temps could plunge to 30-below
 

The real story (in the text):

      With a second wave of Arctic air on the way this weekend, ushering in strong winds and sub-zero temperatures, the National Weather Service has issued a wind chill warning for Sussex and Passaic counties and a wind chill advisory for the rest of the Garden State. 

     The warning is effective from 6 a.m. Saturday through 1 p.m. Sunday, when the air temperature is expected to drop as low as five to 10 degrees below zero in northwestern sections of New Jersey, with wind chills making it feel as cold as 25 to 30 degrees below zero.

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