Thursday, February 4, 2016

"Without Warning" Tornado News Teaser Spawns Twitter, Weather Geek Storm

This inaccuate NBC Nightly News teaser rightly
raised the hackles of many meteorologists. 
Yesterday, more tornadoes hit South Carolina and Georgia, a day after other twisters srruck Mississippi and Alabama.

Like most news organizations,  NBC Nightly News dutifully reported on these storms. They teased it with an image of an ugly big tornado with the words "Without Warning."

Here's the problem: The tornado that they pictured, and every tornado that struck the Southeast the past couple of days was preceded by a tornado warning from the National Weather Service.

The NWS did their job and warned everyone of the tornado danger to the best of their ability.  The proof is in the pudding: While there was widespread damage, nobody died in the tornadoes and there were only a few minor injuries.

Yeah,  many people saw the tornadoes coming and took cover. But the urgent National Weather Service tornado warnings also surely prompted people to seek shelter, and that saved lives.

The "without warning" news teaser on NBC raised my hackles, and that of a lot of other tornado watchers, weather geeks and people, like me, who have facts on their side and know the National Weather Service is not "always wrong" but almost always right.

Meteorologist Brandon Sullivan of Oklahoma City saw the NBC News "without warning" teaser and Tweeted, "Whom among my weather followers believe this to be true of yesterday's tornadoes?"

The answer: Not many.

But there was a lot of debate on how exercised we should get about what I believe is a misleading teaser and how we should respond to it.

In my view, the inaccurate "without warning" tornado teaser on NBC was largely about grabbing viewers and web hits. Search Engine Optimization, or SEO you understand.

I'm guessing that "without warning" is a way to grab eyeballs, viewers and web hits to the story.

I've been in journalism a long time. You want to grab readers. You want to get people to watch your reports, follow you. What's the point of producing news if nobody is paying attention to it?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with telling the story in a compelling, thoughtful way. In journalism, you must do that.

But you have to be accurate, though. The "without warning" teaser fails that test.

Which is too bad. I watched the actual complete NBC Nightly News segment on the tornadoes and storms and as far as I can tell he actual reporting was accurate. As you always want to do in journalism, NBC soundly captured the human element of the story by interviewing tornado victims.

Maybe the question is what do you mean by "without warning"

Operational meteorologist Matt Lanza in Houston Tweeted "'Without warning' can mean a lot of things beyond a forecast, but it's tough for us to accept that."

For instance, Lanza says, if you wake up tomorrow and your house is hit by a tornado, regardless of forecasts, the fact that your house was destroyed by the twister kind of came without warning, because a half hour before the tornado, you didn't know the home would be destroyed.

A bigger issue is how much of a lead time cancels out the meme that the tornado was without warning? You really can't issue a tornado warning for a very specific location unti you see signs of it on radar. Which means you only have a half hour lead time or less in most instances.

I don't think the public, or many in the news media, understand the scientific limits of how far in advance you can warn of dangerous weather, like tornadoes.

In this week's tornadoes, forecasters knew four or five days in advance that the area around Alabama faced the risk of twisters, but there was no way to tell which specific towns would be hit.

As Texas environmental scientist Tom Gill Tweeted: "Until we can tell them 'a tornado will hit 742 Evergreen Terrace at 1:56 p.m. Friday,' they'll say it was without warning."

The "without warning" meme you see in so many news media stories about extreme storms is also an annoying cliche. When you can't think of an interesting way to tell a news story under deadline, you resort to these tired old phrases.

This dilutes the accuracy of news media accounts of storms.

Which frustrates a lot of people, including Dr. Marshall Shepherd. He knows a lot about the intersection of weather forecasting and media, since, among many other things, he is a meteorologist, hosts The Weather Channel's "WxGeeks" show, and writes about weather and media for Forbes.

His Tweets about the NBC Nightly News report showed his, and our exasperation. Shepherd Tweeted:  "Major media, PLEASE refrain from Knee Jerk, 'Without Warning" stuff about tornadoes. It is Sloppy reporting. Weather community beyond that"

Shepherd also highlighted the sad irony behind the news media slavishly reporting on a rodent's  Groundog Day long term forecast for the rest of the winter while seemingly dismissing meteorologists' tornado warnings as inadequate.

One of the meteorologists who accurately warned the public in advance of the tornadoes this week is James Spann of Alabama, who sighed, "I am really getting tired of these nitwits."

If you really need convincing that meteorologists' warnings are actually quite good and save many lives, watch this video of Mike Smith discussing the issue at a recent American Meteorological Society gathering.

Smith cites example of example of how the National Weather Service, private weather companies like AccuWeather and television meteorologists have saved countless lives with their timely tornado warnings.

All this is not to say we let any meteorologist off the hook. If the National Weather Service, television or private meteorologists fall short, through incompetence, circumstances beyone their control or any other reason, we DO need to hold them accountable and find ways to improve forecasts and weather warnings.

In fact, I can think of several meteorological shortcomings that need to be addressed. Examples include short staffing and equipment failures at the National Weather Service, and social media weather enthusiasts who promote hysterical hype rather than fact based forecasts. 

I honestly don't know how we stop the news media from inaccurately portraying meteorologists as not providing warnings. I guess the only thing to do is, every time this sort of thing comes up, complain loudly but rationally to the media outlet in question.

Which is why I was so glad there was such a Twitter storm over NBC Nightly News' "no warning" bullcrap about this week's southeastern United States tornadoes.

I hope they're listening and taking this to heart.

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