Tuesday, June 5, 2012

TV Hurricane Forecasters: Different but the same


The Miami Herald ran an article describing how S. Florida television meteorologists frame forecast information in an effort to elicit specific responses.  The article exemplifies how science information alone does not suggest action or demand a perception of risk.  Instead, interpreting the information as an indication of risk and determining a response requires placing the information into some context and constructing understanding.  Hence, the title of the article indicates that TV meteorologists charged with informing the public of upcoming weather also seek to tell the public what such information should mean to them, "Meteorologists tread line between informing, panicking viewers."  The Miami Herald journalist writes, "TV meteorologists spend a lot of time trying to find ways to make you take them seriously without jumping up onto anchor desks and screaming, 'You're all going to die!'"

But even still, that all will die is only one interpretation of the forecast information and may not align with prevalent risk perceptions.  Phil Ferro of Fox Channel 7 indicates that his goal is to make people react to his information by buying provisions.  "I'll be on TV ad nauseum telling everybody to get ready, yet so many folks will always wait till the last minute to react.  That's what I always work on, how to get people to react, and to stock up on food and water. That's the magic pill I look for every year."

But, buying water is not the only action that is sought.  Television personalities are also charged with growing and maintaining viewership and are therefore competing with the other information venues.  To make their information seem better, TV meteorologists seek to give the impression that their channel has more and better information than another source.  Ferro states that the greatest competition is not other channels, "its your smart phone....One of the ways we combat that is to be very visual, to provide pictures and graphics that just won't work on a cellphone."  

Although the means of communicating the information abounds in graphics, television personalities, and media, the information itself is usually, if not always, consistent with that produced by the NHC.  That is, it is all the same information.  Does the variety of communication tactics create the impression that their is more information than actually exists? Indeed, some graphics may give the impression of less uncertainty than others.  In turn, it is important to study how people understand graphical information as it is not always as one would think.  Often, they interpret less uncertainty in some graphics and more in others even when each image is intended to communicate the same exact information and level of uncertainty.

In 2007, I published an article on this very topic and found that the public often misinterprets hurricane probabilistic information.

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