Hype or Help: The Fine Line Between Weather Warnings and Scare Tactics

Whenever there is a storm approaching, news media outlets go a little crazy. They know that, quite often, storms equal big ratings. No only are people watching for warnings, but they are sometimes captive participants in the drama unfolding outside their homes. The problem is when weather is hyped to the point that people lose interest and tune out forecasts that could save their lives.

In recent years, the hype machine, particularly at national broadcast news outlets, has grown so enormous that the weather version of CNN, The Weather Channel, has taken to naming storm systems over land the way the National Hurricane Service names tropical storms. The latest Snowpocalypse was referred to as Leon. Classy.

This is simply a continuation of what news outlets have done for years, just on a much larger scale. It used to be that only the Weather Channel would send its people into the heart of a storm. Weathercasters like Jim Cantore made names for themselves by being filmed as they were pelted by sideways rain and nearly blown off their bearings by better-than-gale-force winds.

Frankly, if they weren't so difficult to predict, I wouldn't be surprised to see news services creating their own teams of storm chasers to go after tornadoes. For now, we can only bear witness to the gruesome aftermath.

But it is important to understand the distinction between hype and help. Forecasts, as I've explained before, are extraordinarily difficult to make accurately, particularly in big cities like Houston where the metro area is spread out over hundreds of miles. Forecasts, by their very nature here, must be generalized. Anyone with some history here knows that the weather in League City is often decidedly different from the weather in Tomball.

So when people complain that closures of streets were unnecessary, perhaps they were for where you are, but when you must account for an entire region, it's a different story. I'm the first person to say that over-hyping storms is not just annoying but dangerous. Never mind the fact that it's nearly always done at the whim of the news cycle. While "Superstorm Sandy" was covered ad nauseam despite being a rather meek storm, Hurricane Ike, a much more powerful and devastating storm, was abandoned when Wall Street went bust a few days later.

When weathercasters stand in the middle of flood waters and implore those watching at home to stay out of the flood waters, they make a mockery of broadcast journalism and those who choose to watch it. But that's no reason to tune out altogether.

Houston has quite a good crew of local forecasters from the broadcast side to people like Eric Berger at the Houston Chronicle. Legit weather people and science nerds like Berger are decidedly devoid of hype and often give very accurate representations of the possibilities and what to do in all cases.

We obviously can't say the same of morning news programs and general reporting. Unfortunately, too often those decisions are driven by ratings instead of legitimate reporting. But when it comes to science, there are still answers to be found online and on TV. You just have to know where to look.

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