732 Observations of Broadcast Meteorologists and Their Communication of Severe Weather Information During the 2017 VORTEX SE Field Campaign

Tuesday, 9 January 2018
Exhibit Hall 3 (ACC) (Austin, Texas)
Melissa J. Wagner, Univ. of Oklahoma, Norman, OK; and J. R. Friedman

Northern Alabama is subject to some of the most dangerous forms of severe weather, and has proven to be particularly vulnerable to loss of life and property due a number of climatological, meteorological, topographical, and social factors. The risks associated with these vulnerabilities prompted the VORTEX-SE initiative from 2015-present. Due to the enormous impact of the deadly April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak, the public in this region has become increasingly sensitive to severe weather threats, and because of this, broadcast meteorologists in the Tennessee Valley take special care when they disseminate crucial severe weather information to their viewers. They are assigned the daunting task of not only producing accurate, scientific forecasts, but also effectively and concisely communicating that information to the public. Their audience relies on the broadcaster’s ability to give the precise information they need to keep them safe. While broadcast meteorologists have sometimes been perceived as mercenary due to having to balance the need to bring in viewers, our in situ social scientific observations of broadcast meteorologists in action during eight severe weather events during the Spring 2017 VORTEX-SE field experiment period showed that broadcast meteorologists prioritized and, even, fought with management at the television station to ensure that communicating key information to the public would be central to their mission, even at the (potential) expense of viewership. We observed that the main objective for these broadcast meteorologists was to provide easy to understand, yet scientifically accurate, forecasts to their viewers, and increasing viewership for the station was only secondary to their daily preparations during severe weather season.

Broadcast meteorologists who were observed during this research, in many ways, were tasked with accomplishing the same kinds of analyses that were expected of NWS forecasters (who were being simultaneously observed by co-author Friedman), but they are expected to “package” the information in a dramatically different manner and with a very different understanding of their audience. Essentially, we observed broadcast meteorologists engaged in a range of forecasting challenges and taking advantage of resources similar to those available to NWS forecasters – numerical model guidance, radar guidance, etc. Differences were evident – a much greater time afforded to attending to numerical model guidance among NWS forecasters, the NWS being responsible for a number of specific, specialized products (river flooding forecasts, aviation forecasts, etc.), the broadcast meteorologists being almost daily involved in active public outreach and public education – but most of these differences were more quantitative than qualitative differences. These differences were especially evident during broadcast meteorologists’ simultaneous analysis and coverage of on-going severe weather. During these severe events, while there was less engagement with tools like numerical model guidance in the hours and minutes leading up to an event, the communication aspect of the forecast was ramped up with a nearly constant stream of information and guidance being provided on all platforms (Push alerts on their weather app, Facebook live streams with live radar and forecast updates, live cut ins on the stations broadcasts, etc.). These meteorologists have a clear idea of what methods of communication are effective in their region and apply that to their every day work.

The 2017 VORTEX SE team studied eight Intensive Observation Periods (IOPs) in Northern Alabama during the 2017 severe weather season (March 8th – May 8th 2017). As part of a team of social scientists examining how uncertainty impacts the publics, emergency managers, NWS meteorologists, and broadcast meteorologists, the authors observed seven of these events in a news station in the region in order to understand how broadcast meteorologists in this region incorporate uncertainty associated with forecasting tornadoes and other modes of severe weather into their daily practices and communication to the publics. Drawing on participant observation methods and extensive interviewing, we observed the broadcast meteorologists and other station members through the entirety of each event, conducting both pre-event interviews (anywhere from 1 hour to 36 hours in advance) and post-event interviews (completed as soon as possible, within 24 hours of the event) with the broadcast meteorologists. The observations included the meteorologists’ pre-show preparations (including creating forecasts, interpreting numerical model guidance, etc.), on-air weather broadcasts and weather segments, and the station’s live severe weather cut-ins during various severe weather warnings (i.e.. severe thunderstorm warnings and tornado warnings). In addition, we recorded their online severe weather communications through their website, social media platforms, and smartphone application. Although there was only one confirmed tornado during the 2017 IOPs, many other modes of severe weather were forecasted and observed during the research period. In addition to describing the observations of broadcasters in this region, this presentation will highlight examples where these meteorologists work to effectively convey this science to their viewers. We will focus on two of the many challenges facing broadcast meteorologists in our study: 1) how to communicate information when both the public and emergency managers have become increasingly aware of and attempt to do their own interpretations of SPC Outlooks; and 2) how and when broadcast meteorologists in the study region decided to use the “T-word” (tornado) in their communication given their awareness of the public’s experiences and traumas associated with the 2011 tornadoes in Alabama. These examples will give insight into the efforts of these scientists to understand the needs of their audience.

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