Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Media and Weather

The first deadly severe weather outbreak of 2012 occurred Sunday overnight into Monday in parts of Arkansas, Tennessee and the Gulf Coast states, an area known as "Dixie Alley". Already hearing reports of multiple EF-3 tornadoes and that total may increase as field analysis will be conducted over the next few days.
Whenever Mother Nature strikes, the media is sure to follow. Last night, ABC's national news began their coverage with this lead-in:

Video courtesy of Alabamawx.com

The lead-in is absolutely misleading. The wording of the script gives the illusion that forecasters in the region failed the public.  In NO way was this mini-outbreak a "surprise" event. I was aware of this event days before just by following social media posts of meteorologists who work in the area. Folks in the Midwest and South should naturally pay more attention to forecasts and warnings issued by their meteorologists. And for several days, this event was projected to happen. Look at this blog post by one of the top meteorologists in the Alabama, James Spann. Citizens in the impacted areas had at least 24 hours notice that a dangerous weather event could occur and areas under Tornado Warnings had at least 20 minuets of lead time, according to Spann.

Most people are aware of "Tornado Alley" where the highest concentration of tornadoes occur anywhere on Earth. What most people do not know is that there is a second "alley", known as "Dixie Alley" (Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia) that is just as dangerous. Within this region, a secondary tornado season exists during the winter months! Take a look at these graphs that compare Tornado to Dixie Alley:
Notice the spike of strong and deadly tornadoes in the winter months that occur in Dixie Alley as compared to the Plains (or Tornado Alley). A drastic difference. To compound the danger that Dixie Alley presents, take a look at this graph:

Late afternoon-evening-overnight storms add to the danger of Dixie Alley outbreaks. These tornadoes often strike while people are on their way home from work or sleeping. It's tough to follow storm coverage when your asleep. This is why Spann often promotes weather radios that allow emergency broadcasts to be issued when danger is on the way. A great tool to keep people safe when not near a television.

Tornadoes do not spawn randomly. A meteorologist that is worth his or her weight in gold can forecast the threat for tornadoes a few days in advance using weather maps. It is nearly impossible to forecast the exact track of a specific twister, however. But with ample warning time, it shouldn't matter.

Current and accurate weather information is important in any extreme weather situation, regardless of location. James Spann has perfected the art of T.V. meteorology with his policy of wall-to-wall weather coverage if ANY county within his stations' viewing area is under a severe weather warning (sorry, Judge Judy fans!). With coverage that extensive, there should be no excuse for saying these tornadoes struck "without warning"! So why does the media come out and state exactly that? Was it because people died? Or are certain media outlets just that lazy and decide to spin their own story out of what happened?

I've found in my time working in television that weather is often disregarded when it comes to accurately reporting on events. I have heard many stories on various news channels that incorrectly mention current or past weather conditions and events. Weather here in the Pacific Northwest is not as extreme as the weather in other parts of the country. We are not familiar with the severe weather that  the Plains and Gulf Coast South deal with on a seasonal basis. That is something I plan to fix!

I have worked with people who are familiar with weather and who REALLY do care about the accuracy of the story they are writing or giving. But there are times when I have to shake my head when I listen to an inaccurate report  I often encourage my co-workers to talk with me about current weather conditions if they are unsure of what to put in scripts or say on air when talking about a weather story. It is important to relay proper information to the public when it comes to watches and warnings. Not only from a meteorology standpoint as it could save lives, but also from a journalistic view as well. 

There are reports that meteorologist James Spann will be interviewed by ABC regarding the aftermath of the tornadoes. Hopefully he will set the record straight on national television, much unlike Diane Sawyer the night before. 

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