Tony Wood

Anthony R. Wood has been writing about the weather since he joined the staff of the Philadelphia Inquirer 24 years ago. “I write about the things that everyone talks about and nobody understands: weather and taxes,” he says. Over the years he’s written about hurricanes, floods, blizzards, heat waves, the hazards of coastline development and the curiosities of meteorology. With weather stories dominating the news in recent months, CJR Daily asked Wood for his assessment of the coverage and about how he does his job.

Susan Q. Stranahan: How much of weather coverage, especially what appears on television, is pure marketing designed to drive up ratings, versus providing solid information?

Tony Wood: I have been astonished at the amount of time and attention weather gets. When we were kids, the weather came at the end of the show, delivered without frills by a gizmo-free nerd-ball. Now, the weather attacks you when you turn on the television. You would think it was a bigger threat to the planet than crime! When the weatherman finally comes on after the interviews with the snow plows, he is usually armed with such stunning graphics that the real weather pales in comparison.

These days, the drumbeats are all the louder and continuous, thanks to the art of speculation, which is exploring new boundaries. Computer models can see virtual storms brewing almost every day. It has become a fundamental principle of weather that what might happen is almost always more interesting that what is happening. If Philadelphia got all the snow promised by computers, this would be Syracuse.

I don’t know if any of this qualifies as “pure marketing,” and for my money that’s almost beside the point. People unquestionably are interested in weather. But I believe the main reason we see so much of it these days is pure laziness, if not ill-advised parsimony. Weather is obvious and easy, certainly easier and cheaper than dispatching reporters to rummage through public records for a piece that won’t fill air time or column inches for weeks or months.

As a business strategy, this may well make sense. The last time I checked, the Weather Channel’s profit margin was big enough to satisfy even some newspaper companies.

SQS: So how should television and newspapers “cover” weather?

TW: Very differently, obviously. Viewers will always want Spielberg, and if weather is truly dangerous they will need to know what is happening now. For that, TV is invaluable, and, of course, the amount of weather information available on the Web is almost beyond belief.

So what about newspapers? We often hear our colleagues complain that by the time the newspaper hits the doorsteps, our stories will be irrelevant because the weather we are writing about will be different, if not over. If that’s the case, then we are writing the wrong stories. Our jobs are more challenging, and potentially more valuable and satisfying.

First, we need to keep weather in its place. The over-emphasis on weather is as irresponsible as an over-emphasis on crime news. It can leave viewers and readers with a distorted view of the world in which they live — and we are paying for it. You couldn’t blame the benumbed public these days for thinking the universe has blown a circuit. Yet no evidence points to this being an especially eventful period for natural disasters, even in the very limited history of reliable records. The 1990s were a day at the beach compared with the 1930s.

We owe our readers intelligent coverage. We can’t give them an endless dose of plywood and traffic reports. That said, well-written features and solid stories that recount what happened do serve a purpose. People want to know what they lived through, the way they like to read about sporting events they’ve already watched. The coverage needs to give readers some context, however, to let them know whether what they’ve lived through was truly anomalous.

An extreme weather event — and the tsunami belongs in a category of its own — is an opportunity to tell our readers something about the natural world and remind them that civilization is quite a recent development.

We also need to remind everyone why they should give a damn about all this. Disaster is a growth industry. Look at the Federal Emergency Management Agency data on disaster declarations and disaster dollars in the last decade, compared with the 1950s, which happened to be a monstrous decade for hurricanes. This has a lot to do with where humans have been allowed to build. We don’t have storms anymore, we have disasters.

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.