Little Miss Sunshine

NECN meteorologist Matt Noyes has no easy task, reputation-wise. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

There are few professions that have the public singing your praises one day – and sending you death wishes the next.  Yet, such is the career of a meteorologist.  They walk a fine line – on one hand, we look to them as the weather resource.  On the other, the weather is prone to sudden, inexplicable changes. So keeping your professional meteorologist reputation for accurately and clearly forecasting weather event, especially in the eyes of a mercurial public, is no easy task.

John Bolaris knows exactly what that feels like: he won three Emmy awards for “Best Weathercaster” but was more well-known for his “Storm of the Century” prediction in March 2011 as a Philadelphia newscaster – a storm that never even hit the city.  Following this skewed prediction, Bolaris was booed and even received death threats. In a wise move, he took responsibility, apologizing to the Philadelphia Daily News.

With the recent passing of Irene, the weather forecasting industry once again came under some fire for its apparent hurricane of “hype.” Many thought the storm was sensationalized and over-covered by the media in order to boost ratings.  It was even covered by top news talents, from Diane Sawyer to Anderson Cooper. Here in New England, newscasters dramatized the storm’s impact, citing that it would “reshape the coast.”  A friend from Romania called to see if I was OK – according to her, the storm and evacuation of New York City was all over Romania’s news stations.

While we here Boston remained relatively unscathed, the terrible post effects including flooding, led President Obama to declare Vermont a "federal disaster"

While many predictions were correct (thankfully here in Boston we fared well), drastic ones were not, leading many to criticize the coverage as excessive and to lash out against major TV networks and meteorologists.  It is akin to the boy who cried wolf.

Yet, there is always another side to the story, and this is no exception. If there is the boy crying wolf, there is also the boy who’d rather be safe than sorry.  For all of us living in a post-Katrina world, I would hope we’d all feel that way.  Media outlets defended their courage, and NBC’s Brian Williams reported he had “never heard him [a meteorologist from The Weather Channel] sound so dire.”

Whatever way you look at it, media organizations reporting the weather face a head-on no-win situation.* However, there are a few reputational lessons to be learned despite the challenges.  Like any corporation or individual looking to build up credibility, meteorologists must deliver the straight facts they have at the time.  Taking a lesson from a nun, Peter Morrissey shared with us these three rules to ask before speaking out loud: Is it necessary?  Is it true?  And is it kind?  While the kind piece is not always possible, emphasize the first two and you have a simple, if difficult, guideline for speaking.  Adapt this philosophy to meteorology, and you have a much calmer, less sensationalist world.

Will Katia cause as much coverage as Irene?

So meteorologists everywhere: your reputation can remain intact.  Keep your wits and ethics about you, and you’ll be able to weather even the worst of public opinion.  Hit us with the hard cold facts, make sure they are necessary (for the public good), and we can all sleep better.  Let’s start with Katia.

*This recalls the immortal words for Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott (The Office) on being a leader: “Would I rather be feared or loved? Um… Easy, both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”

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