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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 01/27/2008

Freedman: In Defense of TV Weathercasters

By Andrew Freedman

TV weathercasters are a paranoid lot.

They have good grounds for living in fear, because they're often a scapegoat in the television age.

As the adage goes, they have the only gig around where they can be wrong and suffer few, if any, consequences. Even before their bright, abnormally happy faces light up the screens, they know that you, the viewers, resent them, as you remember the times they were wrong in the past even though if you added it up, they are right more often than they are wrong.

Unlike Super Doppler-7 Meteorologist Stormy McStormpants, you don't have a job where you can mess up frequently. You have a normal, boring job where you make real decisions, not mere guesses dressed up as predictions. If you're wrong, there are much more serious consequences than angry viewer email.

"Let's be honest, weather forecasters are pretty much a joke. Their title is actually a misnomer. They're actually weather computer 'readers'," wrote Capital Weather Gang reader "dcsackers" in response to the results of our first in a series of rankings of Washington's cast of television weather characters. "They don't forecast anything, they read off the output from a computer with complex weather software which assigns probability from a model for them."

Ouch.

"It takes them 2 minutes to tell you about 5 seconds worth of relevent information," wrote another commenter.

Although theese harsh remarks did not constitute the majority of opinion expressed on the site, they did exemplify some of the criticisms that are most commonly leveled against TV weather folk. These criticisms deserve a response, because they also apply to other weather forecasters, including us here at the Capital Weather Gang (CWG). You pick on those weather geeks, you pick on us, too.

And while it's easy to hate the TV weatherman, it's much more rewarding to learn to appreciate what they do and why they do it.

Hating the TV weathercaster is a guilt-free way of being angry at something in a world in which so much is going wrong. In an era of political polarization, hating the TV weatherman seems to be one of the few things that can unite Americans.

Of course there are some TV meteorologists who don't know much science, especially when it comes to global climate change issues. And sure, there are some poor communicators out there. And finally, yes, they are wrong from time to time.

But they exhibit some of the same aspects that Americans value in their sports teams, in their favorite characters on television shows, and among their best friends.

In short, they're the underdog.

They go on television every day with the task of translating complicated scientific information into easy-to-understand information that could potentially save lives. In striving to make an accurate prediction they run up against a paradox: the weather can't be predicted with 100 percent accuracy.

Every weather forecaster, on television or not, faces long odds against being right all the time, but TV meteorologists are in the public spotlight to a degree that other forecasters, such as National Weather Service experts and individuals here at CWG, are not. In other words, they "own" their forecasts more than other forecasters do. For this reason, TV weathercasting is probably the most second-guessed profession aside from being a politician.

The most common misconception of a TV meteorologist's role, as illustrated by "dcsackers" comments, is that they just read a computer printout of what the weather is going to be and then go on the air claiming that prediction as their own. While I can't guarantee this has never happened, I can say from experience that forecasting the weather on TV takes every bit as much skill as forecasting the weather in other situations, including here at the Capital Weather Gang (CWG).

The bottom line is this: there is much more to weather forecasting, including TV weathercasting, than simply looking at a computer model and "buying into" its forecast. You have to know why the model is showing what it is showing, and what it means for your forecast area. You have to interpret data, verify how the models are performing, and bring your climatological knowledge and meteorological gut instinct into play.

The weather is constantly changing in ways that computer models can't anticipate, and forecasters must stay ahead of the curve. We think we do a great job of that here at CWG, but most TV weathercasters in our market do a great job as well.

TV weathercasters also have to be part scientist, part pitchman and part storyteller. A TV weathercaster has to determine a forecast and then sell that forecast to a skeptical audience using graphics and language that the public can understand. And they do, in fact, face consequences for being wrong. If they gain a reputation for being inaccurate, they'll eventually be yanked off the air.

On top of that, some members of the audience really only care about what they need to wear in the morning. Yet other people criticize the forecasters for telling them precisely that, because they think they are being talked down to. It sometimes seems like the relationship between a viewer and a TV weathercaster is similar to a marriage.

"It's going to rain, dear."

"No, it's not."

"Yes, honey it is. You should put on a raincoat."

"Stop telling me what to do."

We bloggers have many advantages over the TV folks. We're more nimble than they are, we can respond to fast-moving events, and we can "nowcast" breaking weather situations. We can tailor our forecasts to individual locations more easily without worrying about running up against a time limit imposed by the day's news events.

In addition, we can interact with our audience in ways that the TV people can only dream of, and can have conversations with individual readers to help them understand the implications of a forecast for their daily lives.

But just because we have certain advantages over them, doesn't mean they're not doing the meteorological grunt work required to forecast the weather.

So the next time you see Doug Hill or Sue Palka around, tell them to keep their chins up, and give them a hug instead of a dirty look or a nasty comment. They sure could use it.

By Andrew Freedman  | January 27, 2008; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Freedman, Media  
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Comments

Great piece Andrew. Always enjoy reading your commentary on Sunday morning. I don't always agree with you but am always satisfied walking away from a well researched, thoughtful and balanced article.
I happen to agree heartily with your assesment of the state of love/hate for our TV mets. I am sure this is just the first of many varied comments to this piece.
Thanks again for an enjoyable accompaniment to my Sunday cup (or three) of coffee.

Posted by: PJ | January 27, 2008 9:09 AM | Report abuse

If you think that a TV meteorologist's only job is the few minutes you see them on TV, then you are sadly mistaken. Much of their time is spent being the "face" of the station. Those TV guys are a fixture on the local "rubber chicken" circuit, and also make numerous appearances at local schools and charitable events.

Local TV stations expect to get a lot back on their "investment", and there is a lot of behind the scenes work that these guys and gals do, greeting the public both at the station and at public events.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | January 27, 2008 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I'm going to tie this back to Jamie's post earlier in the week regarding weather-related flight delays by saying, "It's easy to criticize what you don't understand." Most people have no chance to be exposed to the air traffic control system, so without any knowledge of it, it's easy to say it's not working well. Most people don't understand how weather is analyzed and forecast, so this too is widely criticized. It's understandable that these complex systems are mischaracterized. But now, when I hear someone complaining about poor forecasting, I just point them here to CWG.

Posted by: ~sg | January 27, 2008 1:00 PM | Report abuse

curmudgeon brings up an excellent point. After last week's poll, i googled the weathercasters and I was surprised to see how many of those names showed up on the dc charity circuit, in schools, local organizations, etc.
Andrew's post also reminds us to play nicely when responding on these blogs. Since the switch to WaPo.com I have noticed that with the larger audience comes the loss of innocence, so to speak ... on the old site, posters seemed quick to protest mean-spirited responses. I'm sure the poll was aimed at attacting interest, which it did, but i was disappointed so much of the response was negative AND vitriolic. [I myself even kvetched a bit and felt a little ashamed for jumping on the bandwagon.]

Posted by: weathergrrl | January 27, 2008 2:07 PM | Report abuse

weathergrrl -- like your "play nice" attitude. of course, as long as folks don't cross a certain line, people are welcome to say what they want here. but just because this site is on a new platform now doesn't mean we can't strive for civility and politeness -- along with constructive debate -- on the boards.

Posted by: Dan, Capital Weather Gang | January 27, 2008 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Nice job, Andrew, as always. I also enjoy the Sunday column, but have never felt so personally connected to the subject matter. Am I a meteorologist, you ask? Nope, a teacher. Another job that is under constant attack, particularly in this No Child Left Behind era. Heck, reread the following paragraph, with several key words changed by me.
Teachers also have to be part scientist, part pitchman and part storyteller. A teacher has to determine a forecast (curriculum) and then sell that forecast to a skeptical audience (students) using graphics and language that the student can understand. And they do, in fact, face consequences for being wrong. If they gain a reputation for being inaccurate, they'll eventually be yanked off the air.

Or lose federal funding.

Underdogs of the world unite!

Posted by: dinergirl | January 27, 2008 6:06 PM | Report abuse

I was surpised to see Doug Hill ranked so high. Maybe his television delivery is good but have you ever listed to him on WTOP? He gives you tonight and tomorrow and thats it. Maybe they tell him to do that but I already know what is happening "tonight" and have a good idea about "tomorrow". Tell me about the second day Doug.

Posted by: NTOMB | January 27, 2008 8:21 PM | Report abuse

Well said dinergirl!

Posted by: PJ | January 27, 2008 8:41 PM | Report abuse

Thanks PJ and others for the kind words. It's always nice to get positive feedback.

Dinergirl, you make an interesting comparison between TV weathercasters and teachers. The relationship between the two professions is quite close, with TV weathercasters serving as teachers in some sense. For example, the American Meteorological Society has been pushing the concept of TV weathercasters as "station scientists" who can serve as the science expert for the station. Therefore, when there's a tsunami, earthquake, or another earth science-related event that isn't necessarily meteorological in nature, they can fulfill the role of an educated voice on the how and why of the event. This concept has particular relevance on the subject of climate change.

Also, NTOMB, my guess is that WTOP wants Doug Hill to only do a quick "tonight/tomorrow" forecast, and that it's not his mandate to them.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | January 27, 2008 8:51 PM | Report abuse

NTOMB--

It does depend somewhat at which point in the newshour you catch Doug's forecast.

He has more time and more latitude at 8 and 38 after the hour, and tends to go into more detail.

18 and 48 after the hour his forecasts are a bit more short-range, partly because the airtime-heavy commentary/analysis segment (which demands as much as 5 or 6 minutes of airtime) is slated to follow.

Finally, 28 and 58 after the hour afford little time for the forecast before the next WTOP newscycle begins -- 10 seconds about tonight, 10 seconds about tomorrow.

So, if you want details and longer range prognostications, go with 8/38. He can be quite good at conveying information and giving his take on how things are unfolding.

Posted by: iammrben | January 28, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Great behind the scene insights, Andrew.
You must have insights on marriage too.

One factor, however, that might contribute to people's perception that weather is no more than a readout from a computer algorithm: it is so easy to find an online weather website--type in a zipcode and a time window and see a weather forcast pop-out. It is hard to know what human predictions predicate that readout.

Posted by: Sheffy | January 30, 2008 10:38 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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