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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 02/26/2008

Avoiding the Hype Trap

By Jason Samenow

In an interview in Parade magazine, National Weather Service (NWS) Director Dr. Jack Hayes was asked "Is there too much hype in weather forecasting?" His response:

I think meteorologists are sensitive to overhyping the weather and creating a lack of trust with the public. Whenever you're in doubt, check with the National Weather Service. When we issue a weather warning, it means there's a real threat, and it's time to take cover.

The problem here is that weather threats don't always materialize. And when they don't, the perception can be that they were overhyped despite an honest intent not to hype but simply to communicate risk.

Consider last Thursday afternoon, when a winter storm warning was issued for the metro area for the threat of a "dangerous" combination of snow and ice. By most accounts, dangerous conditions never developed and readers here started to complain about the hype.

From a purely meteorological perspective, a case could be made that the NWS should never have issued a warning for that storm and should have simply gone with an advisory (issued for the prospect of less serious conditions than a warning). However, it understandably took a more precautionary approach, especially in the wake of the election night ice storm that paralyzed the area.

Here at the Capital Weather Gang, we were not overwhelmed with the storm's potential to be highly disruptive and actually rated the storm just 2.5 flakes, not a major event. But we felt it would be irresponsible not to report the NWS warning and did not feel it was appropriate to downplay the storm with the election night event fresh in our minds. Forecasters in the broadcast media had a similar mentality. As CWG visitor Howard B and meteorologist from WUSA-9 aptly commented here:

I'd rather be a little more ominous about ice in the forecast and err on the side of caution. At times, we have to forecast based on psychology as well as meteorology.

Attempting to effectively communicate risk responsibly will be a continuing challenge for weather forecasters. We're sensitive about being accused of overhyping storms. We welcome your ideas for presenting information about impending threats effectively -- hype-free.

By Jason Samenow  | February 26, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Government, Recaps, Winter Storms  
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