Freedman: In Defense of TV Weathercasters
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."
"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.
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