23 October 2014

Forecasters and Science Writers Knock Weather.Com For Hype

Posted by Dan Satterfield

The wind field around today's coastal low off the Mid-Atlantic Coast. From HERE.

The wind field around today’s coastal low off the Mid-Atlantic Coast. From HERE.

A low-end nor’easter is bringing wind and rain to much of the Northeast U.S. this evening, and Gale Warnings have been posted in the Atlantic as well. As nor’easters go, this is not really a big one, and we will see far worse over the coming months, with some of them bringing snow instead of rain.This is what I told my viewers here in Maryland/ Delaware, and so did many other forecasters up and down the region.

This story about the weather.com headline was the most read story on the Washington Post website Tuesday afternoon.

This story about the weather.com headline was the most read story (Tuesday afternoon) on the Washington Post website.

On weather.com (web site of The Weather Channel) the message was rather different though, and it led to some rather strong criticism among meteorologists around the country. I’ve yet to find a forecaster who felt that the headline (see the image above) was not far overdone, if not bordering on the absurd. Jason Samenow who writes for Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post criticized them heavily in a piece published Tuesday afternoon. This comes a day or two after Dennis Mersereau wrote a piece for Gawker, that also was heavily critical of their “click bait” type headlines (many of which are not really about weather).

Local forecasters tend to get very peeved in situations like this, because they get inundated with emails (and comments on social media) from viewers wanting to know why they are not forecasting “a big storm!”. This happened over the winter when rumors of a major snow storm floated around the internet, but when a major national website like weather.com does it the effect is multiplied. Unfortunately, if you want to increase the number of eye-balls on your website or TV channel, this kind of thing works and works well (See the Gawker piece). Just ask CNN, (or any other network) about their ratings during the ridiculously over-hyped scare about Ebola. Let’s face it, far more people were killed or injured in America while driving & texting about Ebola, than from any real threat to their health!

I mentioned in a previous post last week about how terrible most folks are at evaluating risk, but this is different I think. This is about catering to people (who are the worst at risk evaluation) in search of that all important online page view! There seems to be a large group of people who live in a fear bubble (whether it be from immigrants, terrorists, chemtrails, or deadly African viruses) that eat this kind of thing up, and will click on anything that feeds it. Throwing candy to those inside the fear bubble however, may bring only short-term rewards, at the cost of a hard-earned reputation for reliable information.