3.3 Credible, understandable, accessible: redressing the tensions between localism, public understanding, and affective investment in climate and risk communication

Tuesday, 25 January 2011: 9:00 AM
618-620 (Washington State Convention Center)
Daniel C. Faltesek, Iowa City, IA

Communicating climate and weather information requires both a means of transmission and a text that is compelling. As a former local weather person it would seem clear at glance that a first choice for communicating climate information would be a local weather person, as they are perceived to be knowledgeable and trustworthy. Unfortunately, attempts at using local weather people for climate communication have been less than successful (Teather, 2010). There are several available explanations for the difficulties in utilizing local weather people for communicating about climate issues, in this presentation the focus will be on economic and technological factors that facilitate or hinder communication about climate and risk with the public. Local television weather productions are an important starting point for understanding how the public receives information about weather and climate issues, as it is one of the only sites in everyday life where there is attempt made to communicate scientific information to an undifferentiated audience. In this presentation the decidedly old media of the television weather report is contrasted with the new media approaches to communicating weather information. Research questions addressed in this presentation include: what economic factors preclude effective use of local weather people for communicating climate information, what kinds of communication characteristics produce strong affective attachments to local weather figures, and how can we produce the best cases for effective climate and risk communication in light of economic and technical challenges? This kind of media industry driven analysis works with rhetorical and design approaches for developing persuasive scientific arguments highlighting how messages are delivered to an audience.

In weather broadcasting and in communication regulation, localism has been crucial. Local weather information has been a staple of the local television business model, and offers a site for building connections with the audience. These connections have been shown to be an essential part of television business models in the post-network era, and online (Chan-Olmstead and Ha, 2003). The historical justification for localism has been that local programs would be more responsive to the needs of local audiences. Analyses of the economics of localism on television products reveal that were there should be programming variety there is often homogeneity (Waldfogel, 2005; Yoo, 2008). The literature suggests that local television weather programming would be very similar between markets. On the other hand, attempts to communicate about local weather information from a central source have been met with great hostility by audiences (Daniels, 2008). Market pressures would simultaneously drive weather programs to be similar, yet produced at many different sites. The factors that make weather programs work should be relatively stable from market to market.

This presentation will feature results from a heuristic analysis of weather websites for television stations in the top one hundred media markets in the United States. Heuristic analysis focuses on the content, layout, and interactive features of an Internet site as perceived by a human website user, this sort of analysis can reveal both patterns in communication, and can detail how human users interact with technology (Proctor and Vu, 2005). This discussion will focus on the overt attempts to communicate scientific information through television station weather websites, technologies employed through those websites, and uses of weather websites for extending the perception of parasocial interaction between the weather person and the audience. The results of this analysis will be juxtaposed with the styles of presentation of information that have been effective for popular new media and Web 2.0 sites. These kinds of online experiences are often described as sticky or affectively involving in a similar way to which local weather broadcasts have been (Miller, 2002; Gladwell, 2002).

The styles of presentation typical for local television weather sites are often not typical of those that are considered sticky. Television weather sites are often relatively simple, requiring little computing power to gain access to information and commercial content. Contemporary sticky websites utilize more sophisticated forms of interaction to produce a kind of strong affective connection with the user. The stickyness of the relationship that television viewers have with their weather person is not carried into the user experiences one might have with their websites. On the other hand, simply designing a more sophisticated website does not necessarily result in a sticky experience. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer since the kinds of communication technology that provide sticky experiences are not nearly as available as television, and would require developing new communication competencies in diverse and underserved audiences. Understanding why local television weather productions work for their intended audiences, and why they are not effective for climate and risk communication offers insights into how communication strategies could be adapted for greater success.

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