I was thinking the other day about the many changes the models went through with the winter storm that dumped heavy snow on TN and turned into another big Nor-Easter up and down the Atlantic Coast for the Northeast states.
It was a prime example of why I exercise what some may see as undo caution in public forecasts. But think back to Friday the 21st when the majority of the models, including one of the more reliable, showed 1-3 and potentially 7 inches of snow across metro Atlanta. Oh it would have been fun to put that out to the public, but unless I had reasonable confidence in it verifying– why do it?
Well, it was told to me that some sources did just that. Now, even if it was just for discussion sake (I don’t know because I didn’t see it myself) that’s a bad idea and poor broadcasting and forecasting in my opinion.
Sadly I know from first hand experience that, to many in the public, and to my great chagrin –even among so-called professional news people and print journalists– such things become “they are saying there’s gonna be 7 inches of snow next week”.
Yes with God as my witness I once had it happen to me. Back in the 1990s my forecast called for, I don’t really remember– but I think a couple inches of snow or so, but nothing earth shattering even for Atlanta. But I was asked on air the hypothetical: what’s the worst case scenario? Well, that was 6-12 inches. Well, sure enough, in the paper the next day I read “forecasters say Atlanta could face up to a foot of snow!” And I bet a number of listeners falsely went around town after hearing me say that and told people “Kirk says we could get a foot!”. That was never my forecast. They didn’t say “Kirk says a worst case scenario in the models is 6-12 but right now he’s forecasting…” I guess that would be too accurate and not sensational enough.
I’ve never given a worst case scenario again and I never will. Nor will I publicly compare a storm that may be on the way to any past famous storm.
Often forecasters are excited by the modeled similarities to a big storm from past history in its structure or path or pressure etc. Say the great ice storm of 1973 or the blizzard of 93. But these comparisons are complex things to be understood in context, and if tossed out to the layman are easily misconstrued.
Because then too many people claim you are forecasting that type again, when that’s not what you’re saying. So you get people claiming you’re forecasting a blizzard just like 93 when that’s not at all what you are saying, not what you actually said, and not even what is in the forecast that is on the air if they just listened to it.
This is why as a communicator, I can not share everything I am seeing or thinking. The public and even my news colleagues have taught me hard lessons. It kills me to have to dumb it down so much. But time has taught me the hard way.
As for hype and weather as a top local story or lead news feature… Well, I lost control of being in charge of making that call about 18 years ago. We all have bosses don’t we!
It’s also important to know the difference between what is being explicitly forecast, and what is merely a “heads up” about a background concern. I trust people to be bright enough to make that distinction, but am disappointed to be proven wrong over and over again, even by broadcasters within this building!
I am old enough to have attended a university back when there were still old tried and true approaches to the 4TH and 5TH Estates being taught. The kind that served our nation so well, imperfectly with notable blemishes, but still so well for over 200 years. So I still have old school notions of what journalism is and is not, including ethics. I learned them in the Journalism department while I was learning broadcasting and meteorology. Now we have the modern age of media. Whole new animal. In the past twenty years things have changed. It’s not so much a return to the yellow journalism of old, but a turn to lazy non-journalism.
Now its press release and sound-bytes unchallenged. If you say “such and such BUT some people disagree” it’s called a fair report. If you get a quote from both sides its considered balance– facts don’t enter into it. But facts are stubborn things. They are demonstrable.
Nowadays, most people in this business got here by taking course work in public speaking, mass communications, TV/Radio studies etc., or they specialized in sales and marketing or business. They never studied journalism! Most universities do not even have a dept. of journalism any more and haven’t for a couple decades.
So back to that early numerical guidance on the storm. Some people in the business seem to be in a hurry to be the first to call for accumulation, or be the first to put some numbers on it, regardless of from wherever they may pull them.
But if anyone went with that January 20-21st data that showed 2-7 inches, how would that look today? Or even if they had waited a few more days and then went with the more conservative 1-3 inches as some did Sunday and Monday because there was some model support for it. How does that look now? And such early calls impact the planning of people, business and governments.
Of course I’ve also learned not to be too absolute or non-nonchalant about a threat even if it looks unlikely, lest people be caught off guard. (that’s where the public being capable of distinguishing between the actual forecast and cautionary notes is needed, and the public needs the mental ability to distinguish that such a heads up or cautionary note/background concern is just that– not an attempt to hype) But then again, there will always be surprises in weather for all the obvious reasons that should go without saying.
The fact is I saw that output but did not go public with it nor make it my forecast. But its a judgment call as to if I feel the models are handling a situation well or not, or if enough of the models I like best are showing it, and are consistent enough with a solid consensus. Of course consensus does not guarantee correctness. I like to forecast what I really think is going to happen at that point–the best forecast at the moment I issue it. That doesn’t mean that forecast is spoken from a fiery bush or written on stone tablets and can not or will not change.
I don’t try to be THE FIRST TO MENTION THE S WORD, or flooding or severe storms or any “I can be first” unprofessional nonsense like that. Sometimes my judgment is right sometimes its wrong.
But what I learned in journalism classes I apply to what I learned in weather forecasting classes. Try to be first, but FIRST get it right. Some forecasters seem to think there are style points for being the first to mention some numbers or a tornado risk or what have you.
I prefer to go with what I am confident about rather than needlessly worry the public with things like 5 day or 3 day output that will inevitably change and that lacks strong model support. I prefer not to put in the forecast every remote possibility every time. Sure, every time there is a decent rain there COULD be flooding, sure anytime there will be thunderstorms there COULD be severe ones, sure anytime there are severe thunderstorms there COULD be tornadoes. Anytime there is moisture and cold air around there COULD be snow or ice. But could is not the same as probable.
I see no need to try to ‘stir up interest’ in the weather. I think folks are already interested in it. Sometimes I am the first to mention something, sometimes not. I never know because it’s not part of my process. People may tell me later, but it’s not relevant. It’s cool when I am first but only if I am right. Too many false alarms are suspicious to me.
In forecasting of course, you can not guarantee the FIRST GET IT RIGHT part, because UNLIKE in news reporting– we are dealing with the unknown future, not something happening now or something that has happened in the past. That’s easy beans. But we can still apply the rule that right is more important than first, and the other rule…when in doubt leave it out.