18 August 2011

It’s Time For Meteorologists On TV To Stand Up For Science

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Guest post by Joe Witte (former meteorologist for NBC and WJLA-TV in Washington, and now with George Mason Univ. and NASA Goddard) This post originally appeared on the WJLA Weather blog, and Joe has kindly given me permission to repost it here:

Can we really trust TV weather forecasters for accurate information about the science of climate change?

Joe Witte

Not really, more and more Americans think. That’s according to the recently released results of George Mason University/Yale’s survey of Americans’ attitudes toward climate change, which shows some interesting observations about who is seen as a trusted source of climate information. (Full disclosure: The author is associated with the GMU Center for Climate Change Communication and is a former meteorologist for ABC7.)

In May, 52 percent of U.S. citizens picked for this study reported strongly trusting or somewhat trusting “television weather reporters.” But 48 percent said they distrust them. So currently it is almost a 50/50 split. This level of trust in TV forecasters is down a whole 14 points since another polling in Nov. 2008.

What has happened between then and now to account for this rising suspicion of TV meteorologists?

A couple thoughts: The encyclopedic 2007 International Panel on Climate Change report helped to establish the scientific validity of climate change, so the public’s trust in the science was high in 2008, at 66 percent. But the e-mail/Climategate controversy of late 2009 resulted in many headlines, especially in the blogosphere, about a possible conspiracy among climate scientists. Even though numerous reviews cleared the scientists of any wrongdoing, the damage had been done. Story corrections were relegated mostly to the back pages, if at all. Doubt had been planted and effectively spread.

The headlines about the Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010) climate conferences probably added to the public’s doubt. While the conferences were successes in certain ways, they did not meet high expectations and media headlines played on the controversies and disappointments.

Then there was last winter’s weather. The Yale/GMU survey indicates that 47 percent of Americans see the record snowstorms of 2010 as reason to question whether global warming is occurring, despite the fact that the U.S. represents only 1.9 percent of the earth’s surface. So it is perhaps not surprising that the trust in “weather reporters” about climate-change information has slipped since 2008.

So, who do Americans trust for information about climate-change science?

When a politician says the planet is getting colder, or the sun is responsible for the warming, should TV mets. stay quiet, or do they have an obligation to tell viewers that the science says no?

Seventy-eight percent of Americans currently trust the National Ocean and Atmosphere Administration for climate information. Nearly the same amount trust scientists. But only 38 percent trust the mainstream media. It is possible that TV weathercasters are being seen more and more by Americans as members of the media, rather than college-trained scientists.

What can TV meteorologists do to change that perception? What is encouraging to me is that slightly more than half of Americans indicate in the survey that they need more information about global warming before making up their minds. That represents an opportunity for TV meteorologists to help assist the public in the understanding of climate-change science.

Yes, climate scientists still have fundamental questions about the many interactions of our earth systems, but the basic science of climate change is very robust. Local TV news is a major media channel that the public uses to learn about science. And because science is critically important to the future development of innovations, TV can play a significant role in this channel of informal education.

So, all you TV meteorologists out there: It’s time to step up to the plate.