3.1 Strategic Tactics and Language Features Used by Broadcast Meteorologists during Hurricane Harvey to Describe Threat and Build Resilience

Tuesday, 8 January 2019: 10:30 AM
North 226C (Phoenix Convention Center - West and North Buildings)
Robert Prestley, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY; and M. Olson and J. Sutton

Community resilience is defined as the ability of a community to prepare for anticipated hazards, adapt to changing conditions, and withstand and recover rapidly from disruptions (NIST, 2016). In many ways, the role of a broadcast meteorologist is to help build resilience within the communities they operate by communicating critical information that can enhance individual and community decision making before, during, and after environmental threats. As risk communicators, the role of a broadcast meteorologist is to facilitate community members’ decision making in response to threats posed by weather hazards before they arrive. During severe weather events, forecasts are often supplemented by live broadcasts, giving an eyewitness view of changing conditions; following severe weather, broadcast meteorologists frequently offer emotional support as they relate their own storm experience to viewers who are engaged in the recovery process. In addition to their role in helping to build community resilience, broadcast meteorologists must also possess individual resilience, especially during large-scale disasters in which their own homes and families are threatened. Thus, broadcast meteorologists face the challenge of operating at multiple levels of resilience, as risk communicators who enhance community resilience among their viewer audience, as individuals trying to maintain their own sense of resilience, and as members of an organization trying to fulfill their expected role (Trainor & Barsky, 2011).

This struggle is manifested in the language broadcast meteorologists use to discuss environmental threats. There has been an increasing emphasis on the language used and strategies employed by experts to build community resilience through communication of risk and uncertainty information (Denef et al., 2013; Hughes et al., 2014). However, there have been comparatively few inquiries in to the ways broadcast meteorologists use their platform to communicate weather hazard information, despite the fact that TV meteorologists continue to be relied on in the internet age (FiveThirtyEight, 2015), especially during extreme events like Hurricane Harvey (Rasmussen, 2017).

This study fills this gap in understanding by investigating the way broadcast meteorologists discuss a hazardous weather event as it unfolds. To conduct this analysis, we collected 24 hours of nearly continuous Hurricane Harvey coverage from KHOU (Houston’s CBS affiliate) via YouTube. These broadcasts constitute a 24 hour period, beginning the morning after Harvey made landfall (August 26, 2017), through the overnight hours, when flooding in Houston began and continually worsened, and terminating when the KHOU studio flooded and the station signal was lost (August 27, 2017). Coverage included meteorologists, as well as anchors and reporters, although for this analysis we focused solely on segments in which a meteorologist was speaking. Among those segments, we selected those that occurred within the first 15 minutes of each hour of coverage. This sub-selection was coded using a qualitative coding scheme. The coding scheme was created by identifying themes within the data based upon observations made during the coding process, in line with an inductive, grounded theory approach (Corbin & Strauss, 1990). We code for concepts identified at the sentence level. These include strategic tactics such as informal warnings, interpreting the science, figurative language, referencing previous events, referencing trusted sources, and recommending protective actions, as well as language features such as impact, intensity, uncertainty, scientific terms, concern, doubt, and hope. In addition, we code each overall segment to identify specific strategies used by meteorologists to establish trust such as ensuring the viewers that they will continue to monitor the threat and prioritizing the viewers’ safety.

The results of this analysis indicate that meteorologists serve a key role as translational communicators by taking the science and making it accessible (for instance, using metaphors to explain a complicated phenomenon). This is an important way to help build community resilience because it allows viewers who may not be weather-savvy to understand what is happening and what is forecast to happen. However, broadcast meteorologists are more than just fonts of information. They also use a host of strategic tactics when presenting hazard information including highlighting a credible information source, using visual information and intensified language to increase threat perceptions, and making emotional pleas to audience members when protective actions must be taken. Broadcast meteorologists also personalize the experience by expressing their own emotions towards the event, such as concern, disbelief, and hope, which can help to build a shared understanding of community-wide impact and emphasize collective resiliency and recovery. Importantly, this study also allows us to understand how these language and strategic tactics changed over time, as the threat posed to the community and to the meteorologists themselves increased.

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