Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Weather Clickbait: How Major Media Get You To Read Their Weather Stories

Are scary weather headlines making you nervous?
Could be intentional, to make you click on web sites.  
Some people call it "clickbait." It's a way to encourage people to hit a link on your web site to drive up the number of views, and thus the perceived value of the web site to advertisers.

On one hand, you want to encourage people to read your stuff. That's why you're there, doing the weather dance on this Internet thingy here.

On the other hand, people get a little  way too strident with scary headlines meant to scare everyone about the weather, and to get those coveted clicks.

You got that as the nation was hit by an abrupt Arctic cold wave this week. Yeah, the cold snap was impressive, but it wasn't the worst ever. At least in most places. Just kind of a shock to the system after a relatively mild autumn.

But you gotta get those eyeballs reading. so you come up with the wildest headlines you can.

There seems to be some rules to this clickbait madness.

For one, you have to use the word "millions" as much as possible. I guess people are drawn to that word, and if you say "millions" will be affected, millions of people will latch on to your web site. Never mind that few of these millions will be all that affected by your weather drama.

Some examples.

The headline at NBC news Monday morning as a cold wave arrived was "Hello Winter! Millions Brace For Snow Ahead Of Arctic Blast."

At CBS news Monday morning, the weather wasn't the lead story like it was over at NBC, but they had it on their home page: "Eye Opener: Millions of Americans In Path of Massive Arctic Blast."

CBS loves "millions." In July, they informed us that "Severe Weather Affects Millions In Northeast."

At the Weather Channel, they use "millions" a lot, like on this October 14 headline about some bad thunderstorms and a tornado threat: "Severe Weather Outbreak: Millions Threatened, Damage Reported."

The worst weather use of the word "millions," as pointed out by The Vane, was a Tweet sent out by NBC News in June: "Severe Storms, Destructive Winds and a Gustnado Threaten Millions Today."

Considering that one gustnado, which is a small swirl of wind within a strong wind gust at the beginning of a thunderstorm, is a weak thing that at worst would cause minor damage in a neighborhood, could hardly threaten millions.

I guess they were trying to promote another weather buzz word, so those are so popular. That's why every cold wave involves a "polar vortex." More on that in a minute.

Last Saturday, AccuWeather hit a trifecta of clickbait terms, including the word "millions"  with its cold weather forecast story: "Polar Vortex To Blast 200 Million People With Arctic Air."

AccuWeather, in addition to using "million" also used the word "blast," which always works in clickbait style headlines, and "Polar Vortex" which since last winter has been THE go to word to describe a cold wave that would drive clicks to your web site.

A Google search this morning for "polar vortex" got me more than 13 million links. Hey, millions! "Millions to Read About Polar Vortex When Doing a Google Search" is my clickbait headline of the day.

For the record, the Polar Vortex is a big swirl of low pressure up in the Arctic. It's always there, as far as anyone can tell it's always been there, it moves around a lot, and it waxes and wanes in strength.

Sometimes the Polar Vortex gets closer than usual to the United States, or a piece of it breaks off and actually enters the United States. This happens occasionally in some winters, and that's what happened last January when the nation had a severe, but not unprecedented cold wave.

However, everybody seized on the term Polar Vortex as if it were the ultimate villain from a cheap monster movie, because the media discovered the term is clickbait.

Now, every time it gets slightly cool in any part of the country, we learn the POLAR VORTEX IS INVADING AGAIN!!!!! AAAYYYYEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Actually, despite the headlines. You aren't going to die. But maybe you should take a jacket with you if you go out.

A lot of the media has learned to seize on normal meteorological terms and bring them to the public. There's really nothing wrong with that. If people are interested in learning about meteorology, then they should learn about it. It's all good.

Unless the misuse the word and confuses the public. We get that sometimes with a cool, clickbaiting term derecho. It is a neat word to say:  "deh-REY-cho."

It sounds like the romantic lead in a 1950s western set in West Texas. Kind of like the Cisco Kid.

No doubt, derechos are nasty.  They're big, huge fast moving, long lasting lines of severe thunderstorms.  NOAA's Storm Prediction Center defines a derecho precisely as a "swath of wind damage extending for more than 240 miles, including wind gusts of at least 58 along most of its length, and several, well-separated 75 mph or greater gusts."

They can be as bad as tornadoes, so it's time to batten down the hatches when a derecho is forecast to hit you.

The problem is, some weather forecasters started calling fairly localized, marginally severe storms derechos. So if somebody gets hit by this so-so storm, and they heard it was a derecho, they'll note the storm didn't turn out to be all THAT bad.

Then, if a derecho approaches the next time, people might not take shelter as readily.

Yes, mis-using weather terms as clickbait can actually kill people.

Naming storms and weather events is clickbait, too. The Weather Channel has famously noted that, as they give monikers to winter storms.

The snowstorm that hit the Upper Midwest this week was named "Astro" by the Weather Channel.

I'm surprised when the storm was forecast, the headlines on all the web sites wasn't "Ruh-Roh, Reorge," something Astro the dog on the Jetsons would say when something bad was about to happen. 

The trouble is, how do you define when to name a winter storm? With tropical storms and hurricanes, it's easy. If it's a warm core storm that originated in the tropics and has sustained winds of at least 39 mph, you give the tropical storm or hurricane a name.

It's easy to keep track of them that way.

But a winter storm isn't as confined, or as easily definable as a tropical storm or hurricane.

A snow flurry that deposits a quarter inch of snow on the Florida Panhandle might qualify as a scary winter storm there. Here in Great White North of Vermont, if we get a quarter inch of snow, the entire state yawns in abject boredom.

Finally, can we please, PLEASE, stop giving the suffix "apocalypse" or some form of that word.

Every snowstorm is a "snowocalypse"  Every heavy rainstorm is a floodocalypse. Every nasty windstorm is a galocalypse, or something.

What's next?  if the forecast calls for a sunny, pleasant day, will that be the sunocalypse?

As I write this, there's a light rain shower going on outside, the wind is gusting to 20 mph and the temperature is starting to drop as a cold front arrives. Nothing horrific out there.

But I need clickbait. How's this for the an alarming headline I could use to describe today's weather:

"Millions Threatened By Weather Blogger Being Blasted By Vermont  Rainshowertemperaturedropocalypse He Named Bob That Feels Like A Derecho In His Imagination!!"

Yeah, that needs work.

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